Volunteers join forces for veterans on Whidbey

Volunteers from local veterans’ organizations are working together as a powerful engine driving a new assistance office in Oak Harbor.

Representatives from the veterans community raised their voices and the county listened. The diminutive but bighearted county-owned facility is located at 1791 NE 1st Ave. in room 112.

“It’s there for veterans seeking information about health care or housing problems,” said Betty Kemp, Island County General Services director. “Each organization brings its own specific knowledge.”

Officially opened in mid-February, the all-volunteer center provides a wealth of information, pooling together resources from all of the organizational representatives staffing the office.

The goal of the facility is to help veterans with the Island County Veterans Fund application process, as well as provide information on programs and assistance available in the county.

“This is a much needed service that has been a long time coming and would not have come into existence without the help and support of the Island County commissioners and their staff,” said William Petty, retired veteran and volunteer.

Kemp recently appealed to the Board of Island County Commissioners for minimal funding to install a phone in the veterans center. The triumvirate was extremely amenable to the monetary outlay, although the enthusiasm could not match that of the recipients.

“It’s going to improve communication so much,” Kemp said. “They’ll have access to Camano Island and South Whidbey. They’re very excited about it. It’s a gung-ho group.”

Commissioner John Dean said the service is long overdue. With the significant military presence in Oak Harbor, he added that it makes sense to not only take care of the young men and women who serve in the armed forces, but to also be there for the older veterans who still bear the physical and psychological scars of war.

“I remember two summers ago walking through Oak Harbor neighborhoods, meeting people in front of their homes and talking to numerous older veterans who shared their stories with me,” Dean said. “Nearly every veteran I met in some of the old neighborhoods clearly was not thriving in their civilian lives. Some appeared to still suffer from the aftershocks of war experiences.”

During the winter veterans forum in Oak Harbor, the commissioner said the message clearly came across that the problem with the state Department of Veterans Affairs in not a lack of services, but the department’s difficulty in identifying exactly who needs assistance.

“Many veterans tend to blend into the background,” Dean said. “They are reluctant to talk about their past, and many don’t want to ask for help. Hopefully this new Oak Harbor office will get the department and Island County veterans hooked up.

“As long as we continue to have wars, we, as a county, are going to have to continue paying attention to the men and women who come back home to us.”

The small office is filled entirely with furniture and functional technology donated by veterans. With limited square-footage, the only somewhat pressing need is for a smallish desk — roughly 4 or 4-and-a-half feet — with ample drawer space.

“Even the coat rack is donated,” said volunteer Bill Burklow, a member of the Retired Chief Petty Officer Association and other veterans organizations. “This is a starting point.”

For many veterans — indigent and otherwise — transportation is an insurmountable problem. The facility’s proximity to the Island Transit route and its daytime hours provide accessibility that did not exist before.

A Veterans Advisory Board, chaired by Petty and consisting of representatives from almost 10 organizations, reports to Kemp. The center, still in its infancy, had five walk-ins through the beginning of March. The seemingly small number, however, was generated without any advertising or publicity.

“Like any other organization, we are learning as we grow,” said retired veteran William Petty, chairman of the advisory board. “The bottom line is and will remain the welfare of Island County veterans.”

“The big thing is, the word’s not out there that we’re here,” added Burklow.

The vet center was not established as a panacea for the multitude of issues veterans must contend with. Its vision is to provide a single, comprehensive location that serves as a hub where veterans are given the scissors necessary to cut through red tape or can find a partner with whom to wade through the sea of veterans’ forms.

“When necessary, veterans will be directed to a certified chapter service officer at one of the veteran service organizations for assistance submitting claims to the Department of Veteran Affairs for service-connected disabilities compensation,” Petty explained.

Kemp said her department will explore more outreach programs for veterans. But for now, baby steps are the key. “We want to do this right.”

The vet center operates during the county building’s hours, from 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Staffing information is posted on the vet center’s door.

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