HARRISON – Karl Hauser, Clare County Veterans Services director, provided an overview of his department and data update for county commissioners during the Feb. 1 BOC Meeting of the Whole. Hauser began by introducing Veterans Service Officer Allisha Gary.
Hauser told commissioners that they may have noticed when driving around the county that Veterans Services has seven billboards: five on U.S. 127, one on U.S. 10 coming around the curve from Loomis [which boasts a picture of local World War II veteran Ed Haynack in uniform], and another on Saginaw Road on the way into the clinic. There are also six bus wraps which use the same pictures as the billboards.
“The whole point of that is people see our phone number, know we’re here, and hopefully get ahold of us,” he said. “The added benefit with the bus wraps is 40% of the leasing fee goes to Clare County Transit, so it’s an additional money source for them.”
He then offered a quote from George Washington, which stated: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of other wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
Hauser summed it up as coming down to the reality of the perception for young people who look at the possibility of the military, whether as a career or a term of service, and how they’re treated when they get out. He said that is one of the things the VA is charged with doing. Noting that he wasn’t necessarily a cheerleader for the VA, considering the size of that bureaucracy, he thinks it does fairly well.
“You will have many veterans who will disagree with me – vehemently,” he said. “A lot of times it’s because they don’t understand the process. They don’t have to like it, but there is a process when dealing with vets, so this is what we help do.”
He noted that services for veterans have to be sought by the veterans themselves, and that while well-intended relatives or neighbors will call to seek assistance for their veteran, he cannot act on that inquiry. Hauser defined part of the problem can be that a veteran’s pride may get in the way of him/her seeking assistance.
“Pride can get in the way,” he said. “But you can’t eat pride.”
The veteran must speak with someone in his office so Hauser can determine the veteran’s specific needs and pursue the services which truly apply in that individual circumstance.
Hauser then made clear to commissioners who Veterans Services is and is not. It is a full-time office maintained and supported by Clare County to provide needed services to Clare County veterans and their families. It is not the VA/U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. His “What we do” list included assisting veterans and their families in filing claims with local, state and federal agencies for benefits which they may be eligible to receive, and also assist in any other possible way with Veterans Services’ available resources and abilities.
He added that his office works closely with nationally chartered veterans service organizations, such as The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, to help expedite the claims process. He cited the types of VA claims to include: Disability Compensation; Pension; Aid & Attendance; Dependency Indemnity Compensation; Individual Unemployability; Vocational Rehabilitation; and Burial Allowance [federal].
Hauser then pointed out veterans’ financial impact to the county, including the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates of approximately 2,609 veterans in Clare County in Fiscal Year 2021, and that federal dollars returned to the county for disability compensation and pension (including the highly important, yet often overlooked survivors’) benefits at $15.8 million in FY 2021; $15.6 million in FY 2020; $14.1 million in FY 2019; and $12.4 in FY 2018. Hauser gave the example of surviving spouses of veteran spouses who served in a wartime era, who are being helped by the VA to pay their nursing home costs. He said that that maximum right now is about $1,300 per month, and while that’s not much against high medical bills, it does help.
“It’s important to get the word out that spouses may be eligible for that as well,” he said. “Because a lot of these things also apply for the families.”
Hauser said the more people he gets in to apply to see if they’re eligible for benefits, the more of that money comes back to the county. He acknowledged that it is already Clare County tax dollars, but the more of that money that comes back, the more that will be spent within the county. Hauser said that influx of returned dollars is the only benchmark he has on how the office is doing, and that his goal is to get that number up every year.
“The more veterans we can get their benefits tied and going and have more income from the VA, the better,” he said.
He then moved on to describe the county’s Veterans Transportation Network which includes two vans paid for by donations and matching grant from Disabled American Veterans. The five volunteer drivers transport veterans at no cost from Clare, Gladwin, Isabella and Midland counties to medical appointments in Saginaw, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Battle Creek. He provided data on the number of veterans transported/miles driven, noting the decline due to COVID, but also the slow increase seen over the last calendar year with more veterans needing rides. Those numbers include: 196 veterans/36,028 miles driven in CY 2021; 160/27,767 in CY 2020; and in 346/52,946 in CY 2019.
Hauser said one of his biggest challenges when he has a veteran with a specific need is figuring out what specific resource can best serve that need. He said that can include VA sponsored programs for fishing trips, hunting trips, or simply emergency temporary funds to hold them over until their next benefits check. Hauser cited some of those resources to include:
-Soldier’s Relief Fund which is used for temporary emergent needs such as a propane fill, car repairs or eviction prevention, and is funded through local property taxes [MI Act 214 of 1899]. A three-veteran commission considers requests, and veterans must request assistance through the Department of Health and Human Services or other agencies before applying for SRF.
-Michigan Veterans Trust Fund which is a program similar to the Soldier’s Relief Fund with local committee approval, but is administered and paid by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.
-Burial Allowance pays up to $300 for eligible veterans and spouses and is paid through the county general fund [MI Act 235 of 1911].
Hauser also addressed Veterans Treatment Court, noting there were 19 of them in Michigan as of February 2-21. In most cases, VTCs are a partnership between the courts and the DVA, and operate in a manner similar to other treatment courts such as sobriety courts and drug courts. He said each is unique and utilizes a team approach including mentors and veterans’ justice outreach coordinators.
The Clare County Veterans Services office is affiliated with the Michigan Association of County Veterans Counselors and the National Association of County Veterans Services Officers. He added that Veterans Serivces now has a Facebook page which is being managed and updated by Allisha Gary.
Hauser said his office is more than happy to go out and give this same presentation to community organizations to help community members understand what Veterans Services does. He then described the holiday baskets his office coordinates each year which matches donors with veterans. Falling short on donor this past year, Hauser said a short Facebook “blast” brought people out of the woodwork, all asking how they could help or donate.
“So, the community’s out there,” he said. “It’s just something else that we do for the holidays.”
It was also noted that a monthly newsletter had been started about six months ago, which is put up on Facebook, sent to each of the posts, distributed at the monthly Veterans Coffee Hour [second Tuesdays at Hayes Township Hall], and at Veterans Breakfasts.
The most poignant of Hauser’s remarks came when he addressed veterans’ mental health needs/struggles. One of his handouts noted that only 22 states are reporting veterans suicides, and cited 22-plus veterans and one active duty soldier are lost to suicide every day. He spoke of the gun locks available through the VA to veterans who decide they need one. This is especially important because disengaging a gun lock can provide a few moments more – moments which can be just enough time for the veteran to reconsider using that gun to take his/her life. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is taking a huge toll on veterans across the county, and veteran suicide is not just something that happens elsewhere.
“In the past 10 days, we have had two in Clare County die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound,” Hauser said. He explained that information comes to him via death certificates which he uses to notify the VA to stop benefits, and cause of death is listed on the certificate.
“This is a real thing,” he said. “The Crisis Line is extremely effective; if you’re not a veteran just dial 988 [the nationwide 24-hour crisis hotline]. But if they press “1” they’ll be specifically tied to a veterans counselor.”
Two weeks ago, the VA rolled out a program which was part of the PACT Act that will pay for veterans to go get emergency mental health treatment anywhere. Hauser said they don’t even have to be enrolled in VA Mental Health Care.
“So, if they’re in a mental health emergency they can check themselves into the hospital or rehab and the VA will cover it,” he said. “This is new because it used to be you had to be in the system. I would say if someone is in crisis first of all, don’t call me, because I’m going to refer them to the crisis line or to the mental health department at Saginaw.”
He said the Battle Creek VA Medical Center is an in-patient rehab facility, the only one the VA has in-state, and that if an in-patient facility is needed, Veterans Services can take them there.
Hauser made it clear there was no way to tie the two local suicides to their military service, and that “everyone faces their own demons.” He did say they were both born in the 1950s, therefore, by age, would be Vietnam Era.
“If there’s enough time to get them on the phone, dial 911, whatever, we’ll do everything we can to get them tied to the resources because, simply, it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem” he said. “We do everything we can to help with that. We have a stock of gun locks and we’re happy to pass them on. Hopefully, it will give someone just enough pause – to stop long enough to get that lock out of the way – to start to rethink what they’re going to do.”
Hauser cited some national veterans suicide statistics among the general population as overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly with firearms.
“So, anything we can do to give them that minute, that pause before they pick up that gun and make a decision they’ll never be able to come back from, we want to get them tied to resources,” he said. “That’s one of the things we do.”
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