This Memorial Day, Michigan lawmakers are looking at different ways to get veterans to apply for benefits.
The statistics are not good when it comes to amount of benefits awarded to Michigan veterans.
That’s State Representative Kurt Damrow. He chairs the house committee on Military, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.
Damrow says Michigan ranks at the bottom in terms of total veterans expenditures.
“We are number 53 in how we hand out benefits; 53 out of all of the states, to include Guam, Puerto Rico and D.C. So we’re last. I mean, we’re not doing good for our 700,000 plus veterans,” Damrow said.
The problem isn’t that Michigan veterans are being denied benefits; it’s that they’re not applying for them in the first place.
Just ask Ian Welsh. He’s the director of veterans affairs for Isabella County…
“Every case is based upon its own merits. If they’re entitled, they’re entitled. If they’re not, they’re not. But when people don’t apply, they don’t get it,” Welsh said.
Welsh’s job is to help veterans apply for federal benefits — kind of a one-stop shop for applications.
Offices like his are in 70 of Michigan’s 83 counties, and the others are served by organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Welsh says another problem is that many veterans don’t realize that offices like his exist.
“You always get World War II veterans or Korean veterans or Vietnam veterans, people who have been around a long time who have never heard of these offices, they’ve never heard of VA benefits being available to them,” said Welsh.
The State of Michigan is aware of the problem, and is trying to raise awareness about available benefits.
“We are trying to encourage people to apply for those benefits,” said Jason Allen, senior deputy director for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
He says the process should begin with gathering your service records.
“The first thing that I would do is try to get your paperwork in order. And so, whatever military documents you have from when you served. One of the documents we really like to see is the DD-214. We have those available at our office also. From there, what you should do is sit down with a counselor,” Allen said.
Benefits cover everything from health care to disability, along with avenues to help veterans continue their education — Allen points to those to emphasize the value — the return on investment.
“The benefit is approximately $1,000 a month, and this is set on the cost of living. And certain parts of our state have higher costs of living, and certain universities have lower costs of living. From there, it’s $1,000 a semester for books and instructional material; and then approximately $16,500 a year for tuition. That comes to a package that’s approximately about $31,000.”
But again, it is a benefit that is not being claimed by many in Michigan.
State Representative Kurt Damrow himself is one of the veterans eligible for education benefits, also called the G-I bill. He served for nearly 20 years with the National Guard.
But like many of his peers, he never claimed the benefits.
“I’m kicking myself. I qualified for the new GI bill. Did I ask for it when I got home? No I didn’t. And no one really presented it to me. I received a few emails or something, maybe a couple letters in the mail. But I am kicking myself for not getting in on this,” Damrow said.
But for Damrow, and many Michigan veterans, it’s not too late.
He’s now working to get the word out — all veterans have to do is ask.
]”We are working very closely with all of Michigan’s veterans service organizations, like the American Legion, the VFW, the Marine Corp League, AMVETS and on and on, and we’re going to put a boots on the ground program. One thing many veterans do is sometimes they lose trust and their faith in the government. So when they get a piece of mail or a letter, and it’s marked from the Department of Defense, it can often go in the trash. We’re going to get these veterans out there to understand the program, and help us from these posts, and get out there and knock on the door of many of our veterans who qualify. We have phone lists, we have residence lists, and we’re going to start knocking on doors and shaking some hands and say, listen, ‘we’re here to help and welcome home,'” said Damrow.
Ian Welsh, the director of Veterans Affairs for Isabella County, says such outreach efforts should help bring vterans through his doors.
He’s also a fan of advertising to help spread the word…
“Why doesn’t the state take a couple million dollars — I know that’s a lot of money, but realistically, in the scope of their budget, it isn’t. But take some money and literally advertise VA benefits. I think it would have a huge jump in veterans benefits in this state, and the state would benefit. It would bring a lot of federal money — ancillary money, it wouldn’t be direct money. But obviously they would spend it in this state. It would benefit the state.”
Given current budget realities in the state, Michigan, advertising isn’t necessarily on the table.
Instead, state officials are counting on word of mouth — from themselves, from veterans organizations, and from the family and friends of Michigan’s veterans.
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