If you’re a veteran and you need to apply for federal benefits, in theory you can fill out the paperwork by yourself. In reality, it might not be so simple.
“Filing a benefit, it’s like trying to do your taxes,” says Mike Hoss, Kalamazoo County’s Veteran Service Coordinator.
“If you have a simple tax form, sure you can do it yourself. But most of the benefits forms that a person has to file for VA benefits are not easy,” he says, referring to the federal Veterans Benefits Administration.
“And so people come to me all the time and say, 'look, I downloaded these forms off the internet, I tried doing it but I’m stumped.'”
The Veterans Benefits Administration advises people to seek expert help with their paperwork. But for the most part, applicants have to find those experts outside the VA.
While nonprofits play a role in many benefits claims, much of the work happens at county veteran service offices or VSOs. The National Association of County Veteran Service Officers says that nationwide, VSOs such as the one in Kalamazoo County help with a majority of federal benefits claims.
And those services are in demand. Western Michigan University, like many schools, has an Office of Military and Veteran Affairs. WMU Military Advocate Billy Clayton says the university itself has a narrow focus.
“We really only deal with education benefits,” Clayton says.
But Clayton says he gets lots of calls from non-student veterans that need help with a claim.
“All the time,” he says. “Not only phone calls but emails, and we treat them just like they were a student. We provide as much information as we can. If it’s not an education benefit service then we make sure we get them in touch with the right service provider to help them."
Sometimes that provider is the Kalamazoo County VSO. Veteran Service Coordinator Mike Hoss estimates that in a few months last fall, the office served about 370 veterans.
But Hoss says the county could assist even more people with their benefits, if those people knew about the VSO.
“When I came into this office, I started doing a little bit of work outside the office and going out and talking to groups. I found an amazing number of people who, number one, didn’t know this office existed,” and number two, had no idea they qualified for benefits, he said.
“They would say things like, ‘well I served, but I didn’t serve in a war, so I don’t think I’m a veteran, right?’ And I have to explain, yeah, they’re a veteran. Or, ‘because I didn’t serve in a war I don’t have any benefits coming right?’ Yes you do have benefits coming.”
Hoss says the office could do more with a veterans service millage, a property tax whose revenue would support the VSO. Only a few Michigan counties have one in place right now.
“We don’t have one in Kalamazoo. We should but we don’t. With a millage, that would give us money to grow this office and with that there’s other programs that we could grow into,” Hoss says.
With or without a millage, some say the office needs more staff. Some Kalamazoo County commissioners want the county to hire a third full-time employee. They say two just isn’t enough for a county with as many veterans as Kalamazoo has – about 15,000 according to census data.
The county’s asked a task force to consider what difference having more staff would make, and it’s waiting for the results.
When I visited the county VSO in November at the county public health department off Gull Road, I met 90-year-old Doris Burnham in the lobby. Burnham's husband Charles was a World War II veteran. He died more than 20 years ago; Burnham says he did not apply for benefits.
“He was just a veteran that returned from the war,” she said.
And Burnham says she didn’t know until last year that as the widow of a veteran she might qualify for assistance.
“I hope you can get some more information out to the public,” she said of the Kalamazoo County VSO's role in helping with claims.
When I checked back with her later, it turned out that Burnham had not qualified for a pension because her income was above the cutoff. Hoss says that some people who inquire do turn out not to be eligible.
But Hoss says many veterans and family members do qualify for some kind of benefit and just don’t realize it. Even if someone has told them they’re not eligible, Hoss says the county can help them double-check.