DALLAS — For decades, veterans in Polk County who needed help with their benefits claim had to go into Salem, where the closest Veterans Affairs office is located.
In early 2017, that may change.
Last week, the Polk County Budget Committee approved $40,000 to hire a county veterans’ service officer and staff a local office. The state will also pitch in to open an office.
While all other counties have long had veterans’ service officers Polk and Marion counties have not, due to their proximity to Salem. The state decided local offices weren’t needed.
The logical behind the decision was that veterans from Polk and Marion counties could get assistance at the state office in Salem, said Polk County Administrator Greg Hansen.
Now Polk County has about 8,000 veterans, and that system isn’t working as well as it may have in the past.
“In an effort to target our veterans more and dedicate services more to them ... it was felt that it is was not overdue, but it was time to do that,” Hansen said.
While the budget is only tentatively approved at this point, the new program has the support of county officials.
Commissioner Jennifer Wheeler said a group of veterans and vet advocates brought the issue to the Polk County Board of Commissioners about three months ago.
They said a local office — and more importantly, a local service officer — is greatly needed, she said.
“A lot of the veterans who might have transportation issues, might not know the services are available, or for whatever reason, are reluctant or unable to get to the state office,” Wheeler said.
A main component of a local program is the ability for a service officer to go to the veterans by setting up events or “satellite” locations throughout the county. Hansen said the state office doesn’t have the capability to do much of that now.
“The state’s really trying to do the state work and not the county work for Marion and Polk,” Hansen said. “They realized they can’t do the job that a county employee can who lives here and goes out into the community. You have to go to them if you want the service.”
Wayne Crowder, a veteran and advocate for veterans, said that vets living in Polk County have wondered why Polk didn’t have its own officer.
He believes the program will greatly improve services to vets in the area, and it didn’t take much to convince the budget committee when he spoke before the group on April 5.
Cameron Smith, director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, also attended the hearing to speak in favor of the opening a Polk County office.
Hansen said the money approved will start the new program, which should become permanent, with an opening target date of Jan. 1, 2017.
He said the county still needs to hire a service officer and find a location for the office.
“That’s why we need to have a Jan. 1 start, not a July 1 start,” Hansen said. “We will iron all those things out.”
Wheeler said ideally, the office would be a place for vets to find assistance with their claims, but also meet and connect with each other.
“I think it’s time. I’m really happy that the budget committee approved the position,” Wheeler said.
She said not being a veteran, she isn’t familiar with the complicated system vets have to navigate to claim benefits, but something Crowder said stuck with her.
“He said the words veteran and homeless should never be used in the same sentence,” she recalled. “For people who have given their time and sacrificed for our country, he’s absolutely right.”
Hansen said a full-year program will cost about $140,000, with $60,000 to $65,000 of that coming from the county.
Crowder said he’s excited that he can now tell the veterans he works with through the support group Battle Buddies that a service officer is on the way. He said he will assist the county in any way he can as it hires staff and finds a location.
“I’m ecstatic that they are taking this step,” Crowder said. “There is going to be a lot of happy veterans and I will be one of the first. I still have not gotten through with my claim. I want to help them be successful and the commissioners be happy they did this.”