Local VA office seeks to keep veterans informed
By Jonathan Pleasant
At least one out of every10 people living in Johnson County right now has served in the United States Military in some capacity. Disabled veterans alone bring in over $6.4 million dollars in pensions and benefits paid out by the federal government each year. Yet, even with these astounding figures there are possibly hundreds or even thousands more in just this small part of the state that may be missing out on the benefits they justly deserve.
Like many areas of Tennessee, Johnson County has made a solid effort to represent and serve those who served the nation, providing the funding for a much-needed and well-used Veterans Services Department. Ralph Hutto, who has directed the program for the last four years, is no stranger to the service. An active part of the Johnson County Honor Guard and the American Legion, Hutto has had much experience helping his fellow veterans wade through the complex paperwork and confusing policies that often plague the Veteran’s Administration (VA) application process.
Located on the first floor of the Old Johnson County High School building, the county’s Veterans Services is a free and open source of assistance for veterans who may have questions about the benefits they are entitled to. In some cases a VA disability pension may be the only source of income a veteran has, and with the nearest VA facility being located at Mountain Home in Johnson City, Johnson County’s office provides a convenient way to get information and receive services without making the long drive around Watauga Lake.
Both Hutto and Johnson County Safety Director Karen Manuel have been certified to guide veterans through the benefits process, and regardless of whether it is simply applying for medical assistance through the local VA hospital or submitting an appeal on a disability claim, both officials have extensive experience finding the most efficient solution.
“We’re accredited with American Legion, Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, and VFW,” Hutto said. “I’m required by the VA to put in 20 hours a week, but the county pays it, and thank goodness we have Karen, she is here five days a week. She is a great asset to the county and all the veterans really like her.”
Whether service connected or not, Hutto encourages any veteran who is facing a serious medical issue or disability to come by the office and ask about assistance, although he does caution that the process can often be very lengthy. “Claims are handled in Nashville,” Hutto said. “You come in here, file a claim and the decision is made in Nashville. Documentation must be brought in to send a fully developed claim with all the required information, including medical records unless the VA has them. Even then a final decision can take as much as five or six years.”
Much of the wait comes from decisions made by the board of appeals, and although most claims are initially denied, Hutto explained that the applicant should try not to get discouraged. “If it goes to Nashville and it comes back denied, we ask why,” Hutto said. “Then we send an appeal in. We have one year to send it back to Nashville, where it goes to the review officer. If the claim is denied again it can be sent on to the board in Washington D.C. where the veteran gets an attorney that will represent them.”
Veterans can choose representation from the VFW, the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, or the American Legion, and in the rare cases where a final decision is still not met, it continues right on up the chain of appeals to the Court of Veterans appeals or even the Supreme Court. Most problems are resolved in the first appeal, but Hutto also warned that if the initial year passes without any action, the claim can only be opened again with new evidence.
Benefits are based on a percentage determined in Nashville, with other considerations including whether the disability was a result of active duty. Some benefits are only applicable if the veteran specific dates during active conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam, or the Gulf War. Many of the claims in Johnson County involve individuals who were drafted years ago and are now facing financial burdens during retirement.
According to Hutto, “Like a lot of counties in this area, when the call came these guys left their tractors and went to war and then when they came back, they went back to their tractors. When they started turning 65 many began to realize that they hadn’t paid in any social security and there wasn’t anything there for them, but the VA will pay them the difference between what they actually draw with Social Security and the poverty level set by Congress. And a lot of people are not aware that even a widow can draw that pension as well. We have many ladies out here whose husbands have died and are having to sell off parts of the farm to make ends meat but they could be drawing an extra three or four hundred a month from the VA.”
While assisting the survivors of deceased veterans is one of the most common services that Hutto sees, he also noted several other benefits that most people don’t realize the VA offers. In addition to medical care at the Johnson City VA hospital, qualified veterans in need of at home care can also get VA assistance, and if a disability requires special equipment, such as a modified vehicle, there is help with that as well.
Other benefits include home loan assistance, and education opportunities. With numerous specialist contacts, Hutto is able to help with these issues as well, often referring an applicant to his counterparts at facilities such as ETSU. With the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and an increase of young soldiers now looking for work, access to these types of benefits is likely only going to increase. Although many of these young men and women are now preparing to return to a civilian life, Hutto advises that it’s never too early to plan for the future.
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