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UPDATE: County veterans service office increasing outreach to area vets

Editor's Note: In the original June 10 article about the Hubbard County Veterans Service Office, geographical expenditures statistics from the Veterans Administration were incorrect. The numbers should have been $17,434,000 for total expenditures, $9,446,000 for compensation/pension, and $7,433,000 for medical care. The Enterprise regrets the error.

Jerry Bjerke, Hubbard County Veterans Services Officer (VSO), met with county commissioners Tuesday.

During the first quarter of 2017, his office recorded 1,443 contacts with veterans and/or dependents. Between January and March of 2016, the VSO reported 1,298 contacts.

"As you can see, our contacts are up compared to last year. We're up from last quarter as well," Bjerke said.

The majority of visits (661) were with Vietnam-era vets.

"I think some of the reasons for that are health concerns due to their exposure to Agent Orange," Bjerke said.

Vice Chair Cal Johannsen expressed surprise at seeing 41 contacts with World War II vets on the report.

Bjerke pointed out that the figures may include multiple visits by the same person.

He shared a recent case with a WW II vet whose hearing had diminished. The vet was living on $1,000 per month.

"We got him up to a compensation claim of about $3,000, so our office does some really good work. This individual seems to have a much higher quality of life. I'm really proud of that," he said.

Reaching out

Bjerke and Assistant VSO Greg Remus continue their outreach to local vet organizations, churches and social organizations.

"It's one of the greatest joys I have doing this job is getting out in the community and providing information," Bjerke said, noting it frequently leads to new connections with veterans.

Bjerke is currently organizing a post-9/11 veterans dinner for Sept. 5, similar to the women veterans event held in April, "which was well received." He's coordinating the September program with Disabled American Veterans and the Park Rapids American Legion.

Following the women veterans program, a widow of a Vietnam vet approached Bjerke. Her husband had died of an Agent Orange-related illness.

"She didn't realize that she was eligible for pension," Bjerke said. After gathering records, "we were able to prove that he was in country, in Vietnam, and she could be getting $1,200 to $1,400 for the rest of her life."

"Again, that's a really good story and it might not have happened if we didn't have that event."

Veteran programs and eligibility requirements are changing all the time, he said, so it's important to reach out to local vets.

Friends or neighbors should refer veterans who "live out in the sticks" to the VSO so they are aware that help is available, commented Board Chair Vern Massie.

"It takes a little boost sometimes to get people to walk across the threshold," agreed County Commissioner Ed Smith.

"Do we know all the veterans living in Hubbard County or do they have to come in and be part of our system so that we know who they are?" asked Johannsen.

"I have files on over 5,000 veterans," replied Bjerke. "Now some of those are deceased."

While he has not been able to make it a priority, Bjerke said it would be prudent to review the files and make personal phone calls.

According to the Veterans Administration's national database, Hubbard County has 2,232 veterans.

The county has lost about 50 veterans since 2014, mostly World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans. The veteran population will continue to decrease, Bjerke noted.

"The largest demographic is Vietnam vets dying of cancer," he said. "Unfortunately, getting quite a few of those."

Bjerke also shared the VA's geographic distribution of its expenditures for fiscal year 2016.

Hubbard County received $17,434,000 total. Of that, $9,446,000 was compensation/pension and $7,433,000 for medical care.

"For every dollar spent, our office brings in over $50 dollars" in medical, compensation and pension, he reported.

The funds may not go directly into the county's coffers, Bjerke said, "but it's seen in veterans shopping locally. Veterans buy more gas, more groceries. It takes them off other social programs. It really makes sense to try to do that."

County Commissioner Char Christianson wondered if the VSO had difficulty finding medical providers because the federal government's payment was too low.

"I haven't had an issue yet," he said. There are local providers, and he is requesting feedback from veterans about their dental and optical care.

There are also two banks that will provide VA Home Loans.

"Last year, we didn't have that service," Bjerke noted.

About a half-dozen veterans have approached him about the VA Home Loan program within the last six months.

Compared to neighboring counties, Hubbard County doesn't receive as much for medical care from the VA. Bjerke speculated that, being a retirement community, Hubbard County veterans may be more affluent and may have private medical insurance they rely on. More research is necessary.

Nearby VA hospitals are rated four out of five stars, he added.

"So the negative press that we hear, as a nation, doesn't include our services that we provide our veterans locally. We really have good healthcare."

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