By Stephanie Malench
Veterans in Madison County have a resource to help them secure benefits from the Veterans Administration, ranging from license plates to health care.
The Veterans’ Assistance Commission provides needed services exclusively to Honorably Discharged Military Veterans and their families who reside in Madison County. The apolitical commission was started in 1933 after being organized under the Illinois Military Assistance Act under the direction of a former military officer turned elected official. The commission is a hybrid agency with government/nongovernment/nonprofit components.
Funding for the commission comes from a tax levy independent of the county so changes in administration do not effect services. Madison County is required to house the VAC even though they are not a government office.
On the nonprofit end, the VAC partners with Land of Lincoln, Amare Mental Health Services, Quilts of Valor, and Vet Centers.
The Veterans’ Assistance Commission is the lowest point of entry for veterans who have not previously requested services from the Veterans Administration.
The Veterans’ Assistance Commission currently has 6 employees, all of whom are veterans. In order to reduce the stigma of receiving VA benefits, all of the employees are encouraged to take advantage of as many programs as they are entitled to receive.
One of the main objectives of the VAC is making sure that veterans take advantage of all of the services they are entitled to. Brad Lavite, Superintendent of the Veterans’ Assistance Commission of Madison County said many veterans get frustrated with the system because they go in one time and find out that they are not entitled to a service or that a service is not available at all.
He compares the VAC to a smorgasbord where the offerings change daily and veterans should check back regularly to see if requirements have changed for a program or if their situation has changed making them eligible.
One recent change is the passage of the Navy Blue Water Veterans Act last summer. The program allows 500,000 Navy and Marine Veterans who served in Vietnam in the coastal waters of Vietnam and Cambodia and have a condition from a list of 14 presumptive illnesses from Agent Orange to reapply to possibly receive benefits.
Veterans or their surviving spouses who are approved may also be eligible for back pay benefits. This is the largest expansion in benefits coverage since the GI Bill was passed in 1944.
Another issue Lavite commonly encounters is veterans coming in for secondary services, such as having Veteran license plates or help drawing up a will or power of attorney when they don’t have primary services through the VA such as being enrolled in the health care system or don’t know how to talk to their doctor.
Counselors at the VAC work off of a checklist with new clients. Only after certain items have been applied for can other services be accessed. Benefits are specific to each individual’s needs. Two individuals who served the same amount of time may both be eligible for the same services, but one may be entitled and the other one not entitled.
One of the main focuses of the VAC is mental health services. Whereas Vietnam vets were not encouraged to share their feelings, Iraq and Afghanistan vets are more open about talking about their war experiences.
A new program the Veterans’ Assistance Commission is working on is internal veterans crisis response protocols with law enforcement because PTSD sufferers respond differently during mental health crises than other individuals.
There are currently 25,000 veterans, mostly Vietnam era, registered for services in Madison County receiving $80 million in compensation and pensions. Last year over 17,000 visits were made by veterans in Madison County.