Blog | November 07, 2023
Blog: Veterans can seek help through many Texas counties
When Veterans Service Officer Alan Smith arrives at his office in Milam County, he knows it's possible to have people waiting outside the door to speak to him in addition to his scheduled appointments.
"We might need to [help someone] enroll in healthcare, assist someone with benefits whose spouse passed away, or help someone fill out the paperwork to receive their pension," Smith said, noting he always answers the phone even if it's on a Saturday.
Veterans service officers are responsible for assisting veterans and their families in accessing military and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. "Sometimes people are unaware of the benefits they are eligible for and sometimes they just need help navigating the system [which can be difficult] and time consuming" Smith said.
To be a veterans service officer, you must have had direct military experience or have a family member who served.
Smith served for 30 years in the Army as a Command Sergeant Major and retired in 2010. He worked as a veterans service officer in Lee County for nearly four years before retiring in 2020, only to learn that Milam County had no one serving in the position due to budget cuts. He came out of retirement to deliver an impassioned speech to the Milam County Commissioners Court on behalf of the importance of veteran's services. Then candidate Judge Bill Whitmire stopped him outside the courthouse to say that if elected, he would fund the position.
Whitmire, a veteran, said defunding Milam County's veterans service officer position was unacceptable because nearly 6% of the county population were veterans, which could lead to a "spider web of problems." This could include reliance on state- and county-led food and healthcare assistance and mental health crises intervention by the sheriff's department.
"When you're doing a county budget and see a line item for $60,000 for a veterans service officer position, it feels big, especially when you are a smaller county," Whitmire said. "But, that is nothing in the long run because [otherwise] you are paying for it in indigent health [care services] or other services the county or state must provide."
Johnson County Veterans Service Officer James Sedivy said that while helping recently discharged veterans navigate the benefits system is part of his job, assisting older veterans who served in past wars including in Vietnam is a bigger part of his daily duties.
"Back then people just did their time and got out and there wasn't a lot of information," Sedivy said. "Without us, a lot of these veterans wouldn't know what benefits they have and even if they do know, it's harder for them to access it."
Smith echoed this sentiment, explaining that while the process is not easy for anyone, it's harder for older veterans because of the sheer length of the process.
"Without us, they may just stop trying to access these benefits," Smith said. "That would impact their well-being in addition to the [local economy] because they would then access resources that the VA should have been providing for them."