No one knows the challenges a war veteran faces like another veteran.
That’s what a handful of vets told Curry County commissioners Tuesday before the board began its day of interviews to replace Veterans Service Officer (VSO) Kimberly O’Neal.
O’Neal resigned — then retracted her resignation, then resigned again — last month. She cited frustration with her workload, created by the county’s financial inability to hire an assistant for her.
““It’s passion, dedication and motivation that’s the number one thing I’m looking for,” said Commissioner Susan Brown.
There is no requirement for the officer to be a veteran, although the county “scores” veterans an additional five points — and disabled veterans 10 points — in their initial analysis. That, noted County Commissioner David Itzen, weighs heavily on overall scores, which typically total in the 20s and 30s.
Twenty-seven people applied for the position, and eight were selected for interviews, held all day in executive session Tuesday. Vietnam veteran Sam Vitale was invited to take part in the process.
Applicants included Air Force veterans Michael Eno and Thomas Way of Brookings, Army vets Anthony Voudy of Brookings and Jeffrey Crook of Gold Beach; Navy vet Doug Brand of Gold Beach, and Marine veteran David Peña of Beaverton. Two non-veterans included Beth Barker-Hildago and Philip Dickson of Gold Beach.
Vietnam veteran Bill Farrell told commissioners that hiring a veteran is critical to the success of any VSO, whether it be someone assisting with paperwork or a therapist helping a patient.
“I’ve had six therapists in 16 years and two were veterans,” he said. “Two were outstanding. The others were horrible.”
Another time, he related, a former VSO officer told him, “Here’s the paperwork; take it, fill it out and turn it back in.”
“That was the extent of his help to this community,” Farrell said. “Pick a veteran who cares.”
He warned that in October, after a meeting to address Agent Orange concerns, veterans will be “climbing out of the bunks” to line up for assistance and, locally, the system will be inundated.
“She (O’Neal) had a backlog of two months then?” he said. “It’s going to get worse.”
He said genetic aberrations caused by the chemical defoliant, used extensively in the Vietnam War, are now being seen in children four generations after that conflict.
“Once you get the guys to come in, show them how to get registered — the paperwork and bureaucracy is unreal — there are ways to get around it,” Farrell said. “It’s been a challenge.”
Getting veterans registered is vital to the local economy, as well.
Curry County is home to the most veterans per capita — 30 percent — than any other county in Oregon. Once they are registered to receive benefits — something they cannot do without a certified VSO — they collectively bring millions of dollars into the local economy.
“Not only does a vet understand the issues of being a veteran, they also understand the urgency of the need,” said Connie Hunter, who has worked to get vets help. She noted that there is typically a two-year learning curve for those without war experience — and locally, there is a two month backlog.
She said the wait time at the federal level to receive medical benefits is 241 days. To get into that process locally is believed to take about two months. And to get actual delivery of those services can take two months to two years.
“It’s that wait time where people fall through the cracks,” she said, adding that a VSO who is also a veteran understands the importance of keeping the process going. “Nobody understands a veteran like a veteran.
Brown, whose husband is a disabled veteran, said she understands all too well the complicated process — and the time it takes — to get assistance.
Tom Schultz, a veteran who’s been under the care of the Veterans Administration for 30 years, said commissioners also need to consider hiring an assistant, as the ranks of veterans are sure to grow.
Brown noted that the veterans office only has about $2,300 available, which isn’t enough to hire an assistant. She suggested the county seek grants and other outside funding for such a position.
“We have to be mindful of how we spend what we have,” she said.
The board expects to make a decision within the week.