Veteran services

‘We’re still here’: Local veterans services continue to help during pandemic | Local

Despite new social distancing and mask-wearing rules, a number of local veteran service organizations have continued to connect former service members to medical, financial and social supports.

“We think it’s important for veterans in our community to know that we are still here and that there is support even during the pandemic. It doesn’t change anything. It may change how we physically approach each other, but it doesn’t change the fact that the American Legion is here and we are always here for our veterans,” Kelso American Legion Warrant Officer Dan Halverson told Post 25.

His group helps Kelso veterans get their discharge papers, which is “essentially the lifeline for any service they might get.” The American Legion also represents veterans applying for benefits from the US Veterans Administration, which provides medical and mental health services, among other supports.

The pandemic “certainly hasn’t changed any of the needs, other than making them more acute,” Halverson said. But it has changed some of the ways the American Legion works on behalf of its members.

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“We are still able to support these people, we just do it remotely. There are more phone calls than office meetings,” he said.

The VA estimates that there were approximately 9,500 veterans living in Cowlitz County in 2019. More than 16% of those veterans, or about 1,500 people, contacted the Cowlitz Veterans Service Center last year to request some sort of assistance, said Jim Stonier, an administrator for the center.

This number has steadily increased since 2016, although Stonier expects this number to decrease due to security restrictions put in place during the pandemic.

“Right now we’re kind of in a waiting pattern,” Stonier said. “We keep hours and we see people, but we kind of minimize the amount of traffic we get at the veterans service center. … We are open, but we have all kinds of requirements for people to wear masks, we socially distance, we clean, we use disinfectant to clean all spaces after someone enters the office.

Even with the addition of masks and cleaning products, the centre’s mission remains the same. Volunteers, most of them veterans themselves, help fill out VA Veterans Allowance application forms or connect veterans with day-to-day assistance with their housing and financial needs, Stonier said.

“It’s a wide range of support. We know very well that because we have the experience, it’s easier for us to make the applications than just sending it back to the computer to figure it out,” Stonier said.

Stonier’s group often collaborates with other local organizations, including HEVIN (Helping Every Veteran In Need), the Veteran Integration Program through Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington, and various American Legion posts.

Halverson said that kind of teamwork helps ensure every veteran gets the help they need. The biggest challenge, both locally and nationally, is to respond to “acute needs” that cannot wait for a long bureaucratic process. For example, a veteran may request gas to go to a job interview the same day.

“Sometimes the bureaucracy moves too slowly, so it misses a lot of opportunities,” Halverson said.

The Kelso American Legion has a “starter program,” which collects donations to keep on hand to help veterans take care of small emergencies quickly. Groups like HEVIN help meet acute needs, Halverson said.

HEVIN helps veterans with direct support, like paying rent and groceries, finding furniture for a new home, or driving to medical appointments. Co-founder Rhonda Black said the group also tries to forge social bonds among local veterans.

The group plans to hold its second annual “Vetsgiving” dinner on Nov. 21 to thank local veterans with a free Thanksgiving-style dinner. The idea is to bring veterans together in one place to “relieve some of their stress” and avoid loneliness while on vacation.

This year will follow all COVID-19 safety rules for restaurants, so tables will be spaced out and no more than six people can sit together. This will limit the number of people who can attend, but “we still wanted to have it so it’s a tradition that we hold every year,” Black said.

“I think a lot of people coming in need that social outlet of being with other people, especially with COVID because we haven’t been able to (gather) for so long,” she said. .

Local veterans have already had the opportunity to socialize at a Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 7.

“One of the most important things we can do in our community and our society today is to let people know that veterans are the lifeline of our freedom,” Halverson said. “People should recognize that after veterans have served and come home, life is not always easy and they need help. I believe it helps the community understand or see the responsibility they have towards those who fought for their freedom.