Veteran services

Benefits await veterans who have dedicated their lives to serving others, but the path to obtaining them can be complicated and fraught with misconceptions. That’s why local teams found at the county level, or with Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), urge veterans to seek free assistance.

Nathan Johnson, Contra Costa County Veterans Services officer, and his team serve thousands of veterans who come into the office every year. But they also serve the veteran’s spouse and children, who are eligible for benefits as well.

“Our main target is to reach the veteran, reach the veteran’s spouse, inform them of benefits and help them apply, but in another sense, we’re also trying to counter predatory efforts to reach that population,” Johnson explained, noting lenders, financial advisors or insurance agents sometimes reach out to that demographic under the auspices of helping with their Veterans Affairs benefits. “But they end up selling them a product, like prepaid burial insurance or annuity or a trust. So we try to reach that veteran and their spouse, and let them know that a product is not associated with the benefit that they’ve already earned.”

Benefits range from employment training for those returning from active duty, to college-fee waiver programs for vets and their dependents. With no evaluation, veterans with service-connected disabilities can receive life insurance, as well as federal civil service, state and county employment preferences, among others. Benefits are also targeted to specific groups, such as those exposed to “Agent Orange” in Vietnam or Korea. For any honorably discharged veteran, hunting and fishing licenses within the county are reduced. The list of benefits is long, so experts who understand the forms recommend veterans seek assistance.

VFW Brentwood Post 10789 Commander Steve Todd and his team also offer free help.

“There are no charges ever to the veteran,” Todd said. “It’s all volunteer work, and a lot of time the VFW spends money to help them out, working on their houses and more.”

Johnson, also a veteran, further noted his fellow vets sometimes have difficulty accepting the benefits.

“Veterans should know these benefits are available to them,” Johnson said. “The big thing that veterans struggle with is, ‘If I use this benefit, it will take it away from another vet,’ and that’s absolutely not true. These are not needs-based programs. It’s not welfare. These are benefits that veterans have earned, and they should take advantage of them.”

Both Johnson and Todd noted the forms are complicated and the language can be confusing, but their teams handle the claims regularly.

“We case-manage the process and provide the service at no cost,” said Johnson. “It’s the difference between walking into a courtroom with or without a lawyer.”

Todd said that while his group is volunteer-based, their compensation comes when the claim is accepted, preventing that vet from potentially taking their own life.

“We come across a lot of veterans where we’re their last hope,” Todd said. “The last couple of months, we’ve talked to a few people who, for them, we were their last stop. They were done and checking out. Guys like us are all service-connected, and we’re all war vets, and we have our issues too, but for me my therapy is helping veterans.”

For a complete list of benefits, visit www.contracosta.ca.gov/1675/Benefits-Fact-Sheets. To connect with the Brentwood VFW Post 10789, visit www.vfw10789.org. For other useful contacts for veterans, visit www.contracosta.ca.gov/1676/Contacts.

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