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HARRISON – When Karl Hauser took on the position previously held by Renee Haley as the new Director of Veterans Affairs for Clare County last October, he had some seriously large professional shoes to fill. While fully admiring of the work done by Haley and the workload she handled, Hauser has stepped into those shoes with certainty and purpose. That purpose, of course, is to direct any and all eligible assistance resources available to veterans in the county.
Hauser took some time recently to speak with the Cleaver about his new position and the challenges it presents. And, learning of his dedicated commitment to running, it is clear that he has a gift for focusing on/accomplishing virtually any goal he sets. It also is quickly evident that this man has a keen sense of humor, i.e.: “What do I do for fun? Oh, I pull legs off frogs and feed them to the alligators in Budd Lake...”
Hauser said he came to Clare County on a circuitous route through employment with Chemical Bank in Midland and the Clare County District Court. Prior to that, he devoted his life to a 20-year career in the U.S. Air Force (1983-2003) where he served as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller. That required he live with the U.S. Army the whole time.
“So, even though I was in the Air Force, I stayed with the Army,” Hauser said.
Mid-career, he spent five years as a recruiter in Toledo, Ohio, where his main focus was to recruit medical officers, something he recalls as being “kind of fun.”
“I covered most of Ohio and a chunk of West Virginia,” he said. “It was for specific specialties they might need: P.A.s [physician assistants], optometrists or physical therapists, whatever.”
A Monroe High School graduate, after retiring from the military Hauser moved back to Monroe. He worked there until 2016 when his wife took a teaching position at Mid Michigan Community College.
“How did I get into this job?” Hauser said. “Well, most of my time after I retired, I was in banking – and, honestly, I just got burned out from banking in general. Working to increase shareholder value got to be a bit hollow.”
That was when he left banking, and in short order secured his job in district court in May 2018. Despite enjoying that job and learning much, Hauser knew that when he saw the notice posted by Haley for the Veterans Director position, he should apply for it.
“Tracy, the administrator agreed, and here I am,” he said.
Of course, when there is an applicant with a multitude of credentials, they are readily snapped up. Hauser said that even though Haley had started her new job, she was able to come to Clare County once or twice each week to help train her replacement.
“That kind of got me started, but once I got in place I figured out very quickly there is no training for this job, initially,” Hauser said. “So, I got in contact with my neighbors in Isabella, Wexford, Gladwin and Roscommon counties and went to their offices for half a day.”
There he asked lots of questions about their programs, etc., and that information has helped Hauser to build something of a library of resources when encountering specific situations.
“If I’d had the time with Renee, I would have gotten a lot of that from her directly,” he said. “A lot of it is not knowing what questions to ask until it comes up.”
That said, Hauser also was clear that Haley had left him with a very strong program, and that he is grateful for all the work she had done prior to his taking over.
Hauser said he had recently attended a conference offered through the state which provided speakers who gave briefings about what the pension center does, the cemetery association does, and so on. This week [the first week of June] he will be in Cleveland, Ohio, for the national conference, which Hauser says will be a week of solid training.
“Technically, in order for me to file claims with the VA, I have to be accredited with one of the main organizations: American Legion, VFW, whatever,” Hauser said. “The VA won’t recognize accreditation until I go through this national training, so I’ve been relying on the American Legion and VFW to file the claims. I collect all the information and send it down to them in Detroit, and they actually file the claims.”
Once accredited, Hauser will be able to file those claims in the Veterans Services office in Harrison, expediting the process.
Hauser said the biggest point he wants to get across to people is that he does not work for the VA, which is actually a national agency.
“It’s a common misconception,” he said. “I say that, because there are people who are looking for the VA and they call me. I can be a conduit, but I don’t work for them. And I don’t want to, because I can be a lot more flexible here with time and resources. What I have found is the VA is consistently inconsistent.”
The Veterans Services office, which is located on the second floor of the Clare County Building at 225 W. Main in Harrison, keeps the same hours as the courthouse: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. office hours, Monday through Friday, closed noon to 1 p.m. for lunch. Hauser said he prefers to work on an appointment basis, which prevents unnecessary wait time. However, if he isn’t meeting with someone and a person walks in, he will talk to them. That’s something that happens frequently with people who happen to be in the building for other business and decide to drop by.
“We get a lot of walk-ins,” Hauser said. “That happened [last week] … and we sat down and ended up filing a claim for him, because he didn’t know what he was eligible for.”
Hauser tried to summarize the types of claims his office can file, saying that technically there are five things he has to work with.
“Under the umbrella of the VA there are three separate departments,” he said. “The National Cemetery Administration: if someone wants to apply to get a burial marker or a veteran wants be interred in the national cemetery, I can help with that.
“The Veterans Health Administration [hospitals, clinics, etc.] where if a veteran needs health care and are otherwise eligible, I will get them enrolled in the health care system. Generally, that starts at Clare which is an outpatient clinic, but they can go there to get their initial setup. If they need an MRI or EKG, chances are they’re going to Saginaw, which actually operates eight outpatient clinics around Northern Michigan.
“The other piece of that is the Veterans Benefits Administration, which is important, because the VBA pays out compensation, pension, disability claims, that kind of thing.”
Hauser said the problem with health care is that a person can be seen on the health care side of things for years and be diagnosed with various things and be entitled to compensation, but the administrations don’t talk to each other and the veteran is unaware of benefit eligibility.
“Part of my job is getting them to talk to each other,” he said. “When you get the benefit side to talk to the health care side and check the records, now you can make a compensation claim.”
Hauser said there are two other county-specific services. The Soldiers and Sailors Relief Fund is a state-mandated program wherein the county sets aside a specific millage amount annually to be used for emergent needs, i.e. propane, electrical service, imminent eviction.
“We have funds for that, but they have to go through other agencies first, typically the Department of Health and Human Services,” Hauser said. “We are the grantor of last resort, because those guys have deeper pockets because they work off the state budget.”
Hauser cited past examples such as replacing a furnace, putting in a well or septic field.
“We have a Soldiers Relief Fund Commission made up of three veterans,” he said. “They’re the ones who decide on the merits of the claim – it’s not my call. Right now we have one Korean Era veteran [Bill Zastrow] and two Vietnam Era veterans [John Roulo and Peter Spitzley] on the commission. If they approve it, we cut a check.”
Hauser said the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund piggybacks on the SRF a bit, working the same way through a different committee, now one person. If that person approves the application, then the state pays for the relief instead of the county.
“Again, deeper pockets,” he said. “The furnace I mentioned: on that the county approved half on the condition the state pay the other half. In that case we did [pay half] but it isn’t required.”
The last of the five pieces is the County Burial Allowance, which Hauser said is designed for indigent veterans.
“The county will pay up to $300 for a funeral allowance and up to $100 for a headstone setting,” he said. “The resident has to have been a resident of Clare County and there has to be a balance remaining, either to the funeral home or if it was paid by the family out of pocket. If life insurance paid for everything, there’s no allowance.”
Hauser said that assistance is a common one and noted that there is a requirement to apply within 2 years of the veteran’s passing.
When asked about who he typically sees, Hauser said it is quite often family members: surviving spouses who can be eligible for benefits.
“Anywhere from current era veterans to my favorite veteran, Mr. Tuttle who is 100,” Hauser said. “A complete gamut.”
He added that certain benefits are tied to war-time era veterans only, thus when the veteran served can affect the benefits for which they are eligible. That would include the burial allowance. Hauser said the current era started in 1990 and has not stopped.
“What people don’t realize is there are many veterans out there who may be 100 percent totally disabled in the VA’s eyes and you would never know it,” Hauser said. “It could be internal, a brain injury, cancer, any number of things. They can go on to work and have full lives but are still 100 percent permanent and total by the VA standards.”
Hauser said there are compensation percentages that are used, but basically it is like Workman’s Compensation, because that veteran got hurt on the job. And due to that, there are lifelong issues.
“The VA figures what they’re compensating the veteran for is the lack of earning potential,” he said. “Because you got a disability that was caused by your service in the military.”
The most common disability Hauser encounters is hearing loss, a common result of military service [artillery, battleships, helicopters]. There, the VA can help when the veteran is eligible by providing hearing aids at no cost.
Hauser said one of the biggest issues his office sees, and fortunately it is infrequent, is veteran homelessness.
“I don’t often run into a veteran around here who needs assistance, but if I do, there’s no place to send them,” he said. “The closest place I know of that will actually come and pick them up is Akron, Michigan, on the other side of Bay City. Sometimes the VA will issue a voucher, and even then they have to go to Clare.”
Hauser said another thing he helps people understand is the difference between being entitled and being eligible.
“I will help you get what you’re eligible for, but you’re not entitled to anything.”
Another issue which Hauser takes seriously is privacy. To that end, the waiting area is outfitted with a sound machine which assures no one hears conversations behind his closed office door. Conversations are protected information, and when seeking information from other agencies, Hauser always refers to a case in general terms. Ethics are deeply rooted in the procedures of Veterans Services, and Hauser has a low opinion of those who seek to raise themselves by falsely claiming military service/achievements.
“I call it stolen valor,” he said. “The watch word for that, that I will continue to say until the day I croak is: Those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk.”
A new service in the works is a dedicated room where veterans can connect via video link with Saginaw to do telehealth conferencing with a nurse. Also possible will be counseling with the Saginaw Veterans Center.
“I’m waiting to hear from the VA now,” Hauser said. “We have everything set up, but they have to provide the equipment.”
One of Hauser’s goals is to make certain veterans are receiving their due in terms of services and federal monies to support them.
“Every year the VA puts out a list of every county in the country,” he said. “In that county, it breaks down the veteran population and how much in federal dollars was sent to the county because of those veterans. It might be compensation, education benefits at Mid, pension, what have you.”
That listing is on the VA website under GPX Report.
Hauser said it is his and Haley’s goal to get that number up every year and show veterans’ situations are improving in the county.
“Two reasons, that’s our tax dollars for one,” he said. “But if a veteran in Clare County suddenly is getting $500 a month he wasn’t getting last month – where’s he going to spend that? Right here. So, in a very roundabout way we’re boosting the local economy by the more federal dollars going back into veterans’ pockets.”
Another thing Hauser is committed to is running. He said he was a runner for a long time, then left it while he was in the Air Force, picking it up again in 2008,
“All told, I have run four marathons [26.22 miles], 57 half marathons [13.1 miles], and anything from a 2 mile to a 25K,” he said. “It’s what I do. The fun thing with the half marathons, it was part of a challenge called Half to Run, and the idea was to run half the marathons in half the states. I did that over five years, finishing in 2015. So, I’d hit that, including Ontario and Quebec – it’s something to do, keeps me out of trouble.”
Having traveled to two by train, two by air, and driving to the others Hauser said the races have given him a chance to see a lot of the country. That may seem to be a lot of running, but Hauser actually runs some 40 to 50 miles every week. And, when icy weather sets in, he heads to the fitness club to run indoors. That’s 6 to 7 miles a day, typically, and more on the weekends. So, if one is in the right place at 5:30 a.m., Hauser may be spotted running one of his routes through the City of Clare. Look fast though, because Karl Hauser is all about forward motion – he simply does not stop.