Benton County veterans office requests fourth staffer as caseload jumps

Fred Stecher (right), a World War II veteran from Fayetteville, is greeted by friends and family Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, during a surprise celebration of his 100th birthday at Shelton Tucker Craft American Legion Post 27 in Fayetteville. Stecher was given a police escort to the Legion hall where he was greeted by a large crowd of family and friends before a short program. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Fred Stecher (right), a World War II veteran from Fayetteville, is greeted by friends and family Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, during a surprise celebration of his 100th birthday at Shelton Tucker Craft American Legion Post 27 in Fayetteville. Stecher was given a police escort to the Legion hall where he was greeted by a large crowd of family and friends before a short program. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)


BENTONVILLE -- The Benton County Veteran Services Office wants to add another staff member in 2024 because of an increasing caseload.

The county budget is expected to be approved at the Quorum Court meeting Thursday.

A new veteran service officer would bring the staff to four -- a staff assistant, two veteran service officers and the director.

Patrick Robinson assumed duties as county director in January 2017. He served in the Marine Corps from 2001 to 2005.

The proposed 2024 Veteran Services Office budget is $302,680 compared with $214,383 in 2023. Adding a staff member would cost $79,998, according to the county.

Benton County is home to about 16,500 veterans. That doesn't include surviving spouses or other dependents of deceased veterans who may still qualify for federal veterans benefits, Robinson said.

There were around 16.2 million veterans in the United States in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

When Robinson was hired in 2017, he approached County Judge Barry Moehring about eliminating a position unfilled at the time.

"Back then our workload just didn't warrant a staff of four," Robinson said. "Now, things have changed. Simply put, we're busier than we once were. There are now more VA benefits available than in the past."

The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act was signed into law in August 2022. The act is the largest expansion of VA benefits in history, Robinson said.

The act expands health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances, according to the Veterans Affairs website.

"We have experienced a huge increase in workload since the PACT Act was signed into law," Robinson said. "Also, the VA, as well as veteran service organizations, are doing a better job of advertising these benefits. Veterans and their dependents are now more informed of VA benefits they may qualify for than ever before."

Through October, Robinson's office has averaged 193 scheduled appointments per month and 671 incoming calls per month. The office is booked about three to four weeks out for an appointment, he said.

Mike Lewis, a veterans service officer with Washington County Veteran Services, said that office also saw a rush of veterans who had PACT Act questions. The office sees about 300 veterans per month via walk-ins or phone calls, he said. That number was as high as 400 to 500 when veterans were asking questions or wanted information about the PACT Act, said Lewis, a 25-year Air Force veteran. The Washington County office has a director, two veteran services officers and a part-time office manager, he said.

The local VA in Fayetteville did a good job getting information about the act out to local veterans, Lewis said.

Benton County Justice of the Peace Dustin Todd said he is in favor of adding a position to the office. Because of changes in different laws, there is a lot of paperwork veterans must file to get benefits, he said.

"Unfortunately, the application process for VA benefits is not a straightforward one," Robinson said. "In fact, I'd say it's a very confusing process with lots of red tape. That's where we come into play. [Veteran service officer Leigh Howerton] and myself are accredited by the Veterans Benefits Administration to assist with the claims process. Primarily what we assist with are VA disability compensation claims, veterans pension claims and survivor pension claims, but there are quite a few other benefits that we can assist with."

For a while, the office could accommodate out-of-county or out-of-state veterans. The focus has been narrowed to just Benton County residents because of the increased workload, Robinson said.

World War II veterans are becoming fewer and fewer, Robinson and Lewis said. Of the 16.1 million Americans who served in World War II, 119,550 were alive as of September, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

  photo  Fred Stecher (right), a World War II veteran from Fayetteville, gets a hug Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, from his sister, Jane Stuller of Rushville, Ohio, as they look at a display of photographs from Stechers life during a surprise celebration of his 100th birthday at Shelton Tucker Craft American Legion Post 27 in Fayetteville. Stecher was given a police escort to the Legion hall where he was greeted by a large crowd of family and friends before a short program. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
 
 
  photo  Fred Stecher (right), a World War II veteran from Fayetteville, tips his hat Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, after donning a special birthday sash alongside his granddaughter, Ali Guthrie (left), during a surprise celebration of his 100th birthday at Shelton Tucker Craft American Legion Post 27 in Fayetteville. Stecher was given a police escort to the Legion hall where he was greeted by a large crowd of family and friends before a short program. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
 
 


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