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Extending a helping hand to veterans

Local office supports five area counties

POSTED: November 24, 2010 4:00 a.m.

With the economy hurting his business, Brett Bentley found he could no longer afford health insurance.


“And the older you get, the higher the costs,” said the 51-year-old Dawsonville man.


He turned to the Georgia Department of Veterans Service for help.


“I’m trying to see how the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) can help me,” said Bentley, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1981 to 1985.


He paid a visit earlier this month to the state department’s Gainesville office, which serves veterans in Dawson, Forsyth, Gwinnett, Hall and Lumpkin counties.


“We serve as an advocate to veterans and their families, sort of like an attorney would, although we’re not schooled in the law,” said Harry Evans, who manages the office at 311 Green St., Room 405.


“We deal with the VA so the clients don’t have to. We pretty much know how the VA works - what documents and information are going to be needed.”


The Gainesville service area has more than 70,000 veterans, many of whom aren’t aware of benefits, such as health and education, they are entitled to receive, Evans said.


Benefits also extend to veterans’ survivors.


Evans has found that outpatient clinic care is one of the biggest needs, particularly as the office deals with an aging population, from World War II forward.


“Health care is a real big issue right now for a lot of the veterans and it’s one of the biggest benefits,” he said. “If they have an honorable discharge and they meet the service qualifications, then they’re eligible to enroll in VA health care and (medical care) does not have to relate to the service.”


Also, Evans noted, Georgia owns two war veterans homes that offer free care.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’d put them up against any two nursing homes,” he said.


Some of the office’s youngest clients are members of armed forces returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.


“The military and the VA are working together so that veterans can file claims before they get out of the service ... and a lot of times already have those claims working, especially if they are injured and in hospitals,” Evans said.


A veteran himself, Evans also can relate to concerns and requests he hears every day.


He served in the Air Force from February 1973 to February 1993. He entered the service just as the Vietnam War was ending and left after the Gulf War.


Evans worked as a deputy in the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office before joining the state veterans office, initially as a veterans benefits counselor in Athens. He has managed the Gainesville office since 2003.


“Unless you’re a veteran, it’s hard to really know what (the clients) are going through,” he said. “Any time I get to help a veteran, it’s just a great day.”


He also has helped widows become eligible for VA benefits they didn’t know they were eligible to receive.


“It’s really rewarding to know you’ve been able to help them get some money ... they are entitled to and that they really need,” Evans said.


Statewide, the agency’s budget was $40.2 million in fiscal 2008-09, according to the agency’s 2009 annual report.


Finances have tightened up, with the economic downturn, and the result has been monthly employee furlough days.


“Any time you cut personnel or you furlough people, you cut the services (for veterans),” Evans said.


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