Veterans services office fills important need
The Hubbard County Veterans Services office in Park Rapids is busy, and that's a good thing when it comes to meeting the needs of those seeking benefits. County Veterans Services Officer Greg Remus is transitioning out of the full-time position a...
The Hubbard County Veterans Services office in Park Rapids is busy, and that’s a good thing when it comes to meeting the needs of those seeking benefits. County Veterans Services Officer Greg Remus is transitioning out of the full-time position and toward retirement while training newcomer Jerry Bjerke. The two, along with long-time administrative assistant Karen Van De Venter, are responsible for assisting Hubbard County veterans navigate the complexities of Veterans Affairs.
“We help veterans apply for benefits they’ve earned,” Remus said. “Oftentimes when they are eligible for one thing it opens the door for other benefits.” Some of the different benefits include compensation for disabilities, education, funeral and burial expenses and health benefits through federal VA hospitals. And with federal programs come federal forms and paperwork. That’s where veterans can run into some problems in not knowing exactly what they are looking for or who to contact in seeking benefits. “Every individual is different and every circumstance is a little bit different,” Bjerke said.
The key for local veterans who may be entitled to benefits is to contact the Hubbard County Veterans Services Office. “The best thing we can do is get the veteran in the office,” Bjerke said. He recently had a Vietnam veteran come in who had hearing issues and was receiving benefits but he hadn’t updated anything since the 1980s. Bjerke helped the veteran in getting additional benefits based on his service related hearing loss issues. In using this service provided by the county once veterans start applying for certain programs other doors often open to other benefits. “That is one of the biggest things and the best satisfaction I get from the job is really to help these veterans,” Bjerke commented. “They come in for one thing and you’re able to help them with something else.”
Bjerke retired in January after a 30-year career in the United States Navy. He’s made the transition from active duty to retired and is settling in to his new career under the guidance of Remus. The plan, according to Remus, is transition from one full-time Veteran’s Services Officer and a secretary in Park Rapids to a two VSO office with the addition of Bjerke. Van De Venter and Remus are moving toward retirement and both will work half-time to fill one position as Bjerke gains more experience. Bjerke after two years will then train in an assistant as Remus and Van De Venter retire. Van De Venter has worked 43 years in the Park Rapids office, Remus has been the county veterans service officer last five years.
“It’s good for Karen and I because we still have our half-time jobs, and it’s good for the county because you don’t lose that knowledge and experience,” Remus explained. “It’s good for Jerry because he gets to learn with someone in the seat next to him. And it’s really good for the veterans.” Bjerke has been on the job since April and with each week brings valuable experience and satisfaction in working with local veterans. “I think it’s going great. I’m having a wonderful time,” he said. “It’s a good learning experience as well. This two years is a great opportunity for me to pick up a lot of the info I need to assist veterans in the county.”
The Hubbard County office primarily deals with federal benefits but is not a federal or military office. It’s supported by the county. The office is busy and serves 2,300 veterans in Hubbard County. Of those, 800 are enrolled in VA healthcare, according to Remus. He and Bjerke both encourage veterans to visit the office to ask about eligibility benefits. Remus said when he was working as full-time CVSO he was averaging about 20 contacts a day, including appointments and phone calls. Of the remaining 1,500 county veterans Remus estimates about half are eligible for VA healthcare and they may or may not know that. Enrolling in VA healthcare can often be a daunting task with multiple programs to try and understand. “The veteran doesn’t know what they don’t know,” Bjerke said. “A lot of times they don’t know how to ask and don’t know they forms to fill out. All they have to do is come into the office. That’s the biggest hurdle.”
Hubbard County sees primarily older veterans with many Vietnam-age veterans now retiring and moving to the lake. Other communities with National Guard units and colleges tend to deal more with younger veterans. Needs are a lot of times different based on age. One thing Remus said they are trying to do is keep older veterans in their homes longer by helping to bring more medical treatment out to the homes through telemedicine and in-home nurse visits. Again, the veteran’s service officers stress, is to get them through the door. “I love helping people but I can’t help them if they don’t come in,” Bjerke said. “There’s not many since I’ve been here that we haven’t been able to help in some way.” Remus is pleased with what he’s seen in how Bjerke is fitting into the position. “He’s got the right personality. He’s here to help veterans,” Remus said. “You have to be patient and empathetic.”
Each veteran is different with a different set of circumstances and the VSOs have to be prepared. One day a Vietnam veteran can come in after being diagnosed with cancer, possibly from exposure to Agent Orange. The next day a 21-year-old veteran may come in and doesn’t have a clue what he wants to do. The VSO has to figure out the best way to get the veterans enrolled in VA healthcare, get them education benefits and benefits for their families. The Hubbard County Veterans Services Office is located at 201 Fair Avenue in Park Rapids and can be reached at 732-3561