Value of VeteransFederal veteran benefits stimulate local economy
When Waynesville resident and Vietnam veteran John Bull suffered a heart attack in 2009, he wasn't sure where to turn for help.
At $300 a month, his medications had become too expensive, so he quit taking them months before. Knowing he needed his medicine, he began working full-time at Lowe's and working on the side as a handy man to make ends meet, further straining his health. His wife, who had recently beat breast cancer and suffered from other health problems, also worked full time as a CNA to assist with bills.
The heart attack was a wakeup call — he needed to find a way to pay for his medications and still be able to live his life. So, he decided to pay a visit to then Haywood County Veteran Service agent Brandon Wilson.
"To be honest, I didn't really have high expectations," Bull said, adding that he had only heard negative stories about the VA. "I just wanted to get a VA card to help me with my medications. But it's had a tremendous impact on our lives."
Once the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) processed his claim, the cost of his monthly medications decreased to only $20.
But that wasn't the end of his benefits. Because Bull is a Vietnam veteran, Wilson also began asking him other questions regarding his health, learning that he suffers from heart disease due to Agent Orange exposure during his time serving in Thailand.
It took about two years before he was granted disability and was given a lump sum of back pay from the time he applied. Not long after, he was deemed unemployable by the VA and his medication is now covered 100 percent.
Now, 95 percent of Bull's medical care is provided by the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville. Because of his benefits from the VA, both Bull and his wife were able to retire.
"If it weren't for the VA, I would still be working my two jobs, my wife would still be working trying to make ends meet primarily for my medication since it was so expensive. Plus, I wouldn't be as content in life if I didn't have the VA to back me up," Bull said.
He is just one of the many local vets that receive aid from the VA, which allows them the opportunity to live their lives normally.
In 2013, Haywood County veterans received more than $40 million in federal benefits. There are currently 7,680 veterans living in Haywood County, however, it's not clear exactly how many receive benefits from the VA.
Last year, the VA pumped more than $21 million in compensation disability and pension, tax free federal money, for the benefit of local veterans. It also provided $18.8 million in medical care for local veterans, including respite care. Another $1.2 million went toward education benefits for local veterans and their spouses.
"A lot of veterans are 10 or 30 percent on disability that are struggling and want to go back to school. The GI bill is only used for basic curriculum and does not apply for technical or trade schools. The education benefit fills in those gaps for spouses and veterans both," Wilson said.
Once a veteran completes their education, they make ideal employees.
"Any person who has spent any time in the military has a certain amount of discipline when they come out [of the military] that a 20-year-old college kid doesn't have. There's an amount of discipline and drive and leadership qualities that the military instills in a person and that's a huge value in any business," Wilson said.
The VA's investment in veterans helps stimulate the local economy by increasing direct sales tax recovery to the area. Wilson pointed out that veterans like Bull, who never had extra money to spare before his benefits, can now spend more money locally.
"I feel like since going to the VA that my life in general has improved dramatically. I can do most anything. Before, we were real tight with money, but we are able to spend more money on the grandkids now," Bull said.
Bull now encourages any struggling veteran to contact a local veterans service officer.
"I didn't know and I credit Brandon for everything. I just didn't know the opportunity was there. I knew the VA was there, but because of all the negativity, I didn't realize number one that I could get help and number two that they actually would help me," Bull said.
Haywood County not only has a county veterans service office, but also an office for the NC Division of Veterans Affairs located in Canton, where Wilson works. That gives local veterans even more opportunity to get the services they need, Wilson said.
The NC Division of Veterans Affairs is amping up its services for veterans by being more available in more places to make claims.
"You've got more vets seeking assistance because of the economy and because of vets coming home from recent wars," Wilson said.
By 2015, it's expected that 22,000 more veterans will be coming back to make their homes in North Carolina, a number that's almost double last year's number.
The majority of vets currently in Haywood served in Vietnam, Korea and the Gulf War. But in the next couple of years, it's expected that a much younger generation will be coming back from war in search of work.
"My agency has become really proactive. We're trying to do everything we can to streamline claims. In order to be able to prepare for that number, we've got to start now to alleviate some of those pressures so we can assist more people like John," Wilson said.
Contact the Haywood County Veterans Affairs at 828-452-6634. Contact the NC Division of Veterans Affairs Canton service center at 828-646-6937.