This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Salem Business Journal.
By Dick Hughes, special to Marion County
James Riddle tells the story of a Marion County veteran whose claim for federal health benefits had been denied.
As a military police officer, the man wore a duty belt that was quite heavy. He later developed leg issues but the VA contended his condition did not stem from his military service.
Riddle, the lead veterans service officer (VSO) for Marion County, dug into the science and found scientific research that backed the veteran's claim. The VA accepted the claim. Two weeks later, another VSO in the Marion County Veteran Service Office also used that research to back a veteran's claim.
"We work outside the boxes," Riddle said. "We try to connect things that others have missed."
The result is a powerful collaboration that has brought millions of dollars to veterans, families and survivors since the office opened in June 2018.
"The county commissioners are dedicated to making sure the veterans in Marion County are served. They are committed to this program being successful," said Lisa Trauernicht, a senior policy analyst with the Board of Commissioners.
It's a busy office, starting with two VSOs and adding a third. The staff met with an average of 100 veterans a week during the last half of 2019, they already plan to expand their outreach, especially in the Santiam Canyon.
Trauernicht helps oversee the county's contract with Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which runs the program and employs the staff. "They are an immensely dedicated, passionate group of people," she said. "Their stories are amazing."
Sara Webb is Community Action's program manager. The staff members are veterans: VSOs Tim Boykin, Army; Eddie Grainger, Marines; and Riddle, both Navy and Army; and veteran service specialist Chris Dyer, Air Force.
Marion was the last county to get its own office. The Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs, through its headquarters in Salem, historically had served the capital area.
Working with government but not being "of the government" can be an advantage at times. Riddle encountered a veteran who'd never applied for benefits because the last time he entered a government building, he was sent to Vietnam. But he accepted Riddle's assistance.
Services are free. They include filing disability claims; filing for pensions; obtaining military records; and applying for VA health care, education, and surviving spouse benefits. However, the office is not involved in setting up VA medical appointments or anything like that.
Grainger said some veterans fear that applying for mental health benefits will affect their ability to get a job. That is not the case and, he said, it is OK to get help.
The benefits can be life-changing, whether money to pay for hearing aids, for medical treatment or for long-term care. Yet many veterans, especially women, don't realize they are veterans and potentially eligible for benefits. When discharged, many servicemembers were misinformed about their status.
"We encourage every veteran to check," Boykin said. "It's that question that goes unanswered if you never ask."
A lot well-intended but inaccurate information circulates via social media and elsewhere. Webb stresses the best place to get up-to-date answers is a county veterans service office. To be certified by the ODVA, every county VSO must undergo a year of training. And stay constantly attuned.
"There's a lot. The VA changes almost daily. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into when I started," Riddle said. "The analogy I use is, I'm out in left field, I'm ready to play, I got my hat, I got my glove – but we're playing hockey. That's the difference from going from client to officer. It's a completely different game."
But that knowledge is powerful. From January 2018 through mid-December 2019, the VSOs helped Marion County veterans claim new monthly awards of $1,680,969.50 and retroactive awards of $4,077,633.52.
"I spent 20 years serving in the Marine Corps and serving my country," Grainger said, "and it's nice that I'm in a role where I can still serve."
Location & Hours
Veteran Service Office of Marion County
780 Commercial St. SE, Ste. 302, Salem, OR
Walk-in service: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: 9 -11 a.m., 1- 4p.m.
Thursday-Friday: Only front desk staff is available
First working Monday of the month: Woodburn Estates & Golf, 1776 Country Club Rd., Woodburn, OR 97071
Third working Monday of the month: Santiam Outreach Community Center, 280 NE Santiam Blvd., Mill City, OR 97360
What to bring to your first visit, if possible:
Photos showing where you served
Diagnosis of any sort