The latest generation of veterans — those who served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — are checking on their benefits earlier than their counterparts in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Cattaraugus County Veterans Service Officer Steve McCord said that’s a good thing, because it is easier to get the benefits veterans are entitled to when one starts sooner.
One of the things they hear when they are discharged is to check in with their Veterans Service Office.
The War in Afghanistan, this country’s longest war, ended last month just short of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on this country Sept. 11, 2001.
McCord, who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, has been making copies of veteran’s 214 discharge papers and filing them with the Cattaraugus County Clerk’s Office for future reference.
One of the things in the G.I. Bill that veterans often look into first is the educational benefits, McCord said. “Some veterans aren’t ready to come back and integrate into (college). Those that do, might sit at the back of the room” because they don’t have things in common with recent high school graduates.
Luckily, McCord said, both St. Bonaventure University and Jamestown Community College’s Olean Campus have solid veterans support services. “Having the vets' organizations at St. Bonaventure and JCC is huge for students who are veterans.”
Another big issue for returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans is healthcare. “When they are in the military, their healthcare is taken care of,” McCord said. That ends when they leave. The Veterans Service Office can help vets sign up for healthcare — especially if they were deployed. They may also be eligible for disability benefits.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common problem that many veterans have brought home with them, McCord said. It is real and it needs to be treated.
Counseling for doctors and nurses that had to receive injured soldiers. Mechanics feel pressure to keep vehicles going no matter what the damage. “If you lose someone, that weighs on your mind,” McCord said. With health insurance vets can get counseling if they want it.
“There are also state benefits,” McCord said. A real property tax exemption can save veterans a percentage on their property taxes.
McCord encourages regular updates for their benefits review. There may also be new benefits for relatives.
Within the last month, the Veterans Administration added three presumptive respiratory-related issues for Gulf and Afghanistan vets, he explained. It is now presumed that certain illnesses were caused during military service.
“Stop in for regular benefit reviews,” McCord said. “We keep fighting for the vets as we advocate for them. These are some of the things in our tool box.”
Service organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are also major advocates for members and a resource for McCord as well.
“It takes all vets to watch each others’ backs,” McCord said. McCord can be contacted at his office in the Cattaraugus County Office Building off Buffalo Street in Olean at (716) 701-3298.
Some Afghanistan veterans just want to talk after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from that country over the past several weeks leading up to Aug. 31.
One Afghanistan veteran, Francisco “Frank” Morales, is the director of Veterans Services at St. Bonaventure University. He’s talked with many veterans in recent weeks who have had difficulty with the U.S. military withdrawal.
Another area veteran’s advocate is retired U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Arthur G. Austin Jr. of Cuba. He’s an Opeation Iraqi Fredom veteran, who settled in Cuba after 37 years in the Army.
Austin was concerned over the effect the hasty withdrawal will have on veterans, particularly Afghanistan vets.
“It concerns me how the withdrawal was orchestrated,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “When you go into an operation, there’s always an exit plan. It didn’t appear that was the case.”
Austin said his concerns were not political, but as a commander, he would not have wanted to put troops in a situation where they were surrounded by thousands of Afghans. He also questioned relying on the Taliban to get Americans and Afghans who wanted to leave the country to the airport.
In many cases, veterans groups have not only advocated for Special Immigrant Visas for their Afghanistan interpreters, but participated in operations to get theim to the Kabul airport during the U.S. evacuation that flew 124,000 Americans, allies and Afghans to safety.
A big difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that a lot of veterans stayed in touch with their interpreters in Afghanistan in this digital age where technology enables communication across the world.
“We should never be in a situation that looks very similar to Vietnam,” he said. It leaves others “questioning our ability as a nation.”
Austin said it also leaves some Afghan vets questioning their service. “Our troops did what they were asked to do and they did it well.”