Evan Thompson / The Record — Art Durand, a Coupeville resident and Navy veteran, walks down the street with a Dolomite walker provided to him by the Veteran’s Administration.

VA reps to assist veterans with enrollment, eligibility

Before Navy veteran and Coupeville resident Art Durand connected with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, he could hardly walk without assistance.

Fortunately for Durand, 76, his wife Nora, an employee of the Whidbey News-Times, reached out to Dana Sawyers, a coordinator for Island County Veterans Services, in the hopes of improving his physical condition.

Sawyers arranged for a trip to Seattle Veteran’s Administration Hospital, where Durand said he received exemplary service by the hospital’s staff. With the staff’s assistance, as well as the moral support of his wife and Sawyers, Durand left the hospital in much better shape.

“By the end of the day, I was walking with that cane by myself,” Durand said. “I was blown away. It had to be psychological as well as physical.”

Durand is now fit enough to join a new veterans walking group organized by the Whidbey Island Veterans Resource Center, which will meet for the first time at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 8 at Freeland Payless. On the agenda is a short walk to Maple Ridge Assisted Living Community to visit veterans and a return trip to Payless.

The walking group is meant to connect veterans with other veterans and to focus on camaraderie and wellness, Sawyers said.

Later that same day, specialists from the Veteran’s Administration will assist veterans in signing up for health care and benefits. Veterans are entitled to a variety of assistance, from prescriptions to hearing aids, Sawyers said. The specialists will be available from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.

Veterans are asked to bring their DD 214 documentation.

“All veterans, regardless of their income level, are eligible for an evaluation and possible assistance,” Sawyers said.

Island County has the highest number of veterans per capita in the state. Estimates range from 14,000 to 17,000. Sawyers said that many of the vets are unaware of the benefits they’re entitled to and have earned in exchange for their service.

Eligibility and enrollment will be the primary focuses of the Veteran’s Administration representatives, Sawyers said. By bringing the Veteran’s Administration to Freeland, veterans will skip an often time-consuming and costly trip to Seattle Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

Stacy Wick, a Langley resident who cares for Army veteran Gary Lawless of Oak Harbor, said that connecting with the Veteran’s Administration and Island County Veterans Service in December has led to Lawless receiving the help he’s needed for years.

During the Vietnam War, Lawless came into frequent contact with Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant chemical used on hiding areas and crops that could have fed the enemy.

Lawless had chronic leg wounds as a result, and his problems were finally addressed and cared for by Seattle Veteran’s Administration staff. At the same time, he also received blood tests and other diagnoses that helped to fix other lingering problems he had, such as blood clots.

Wick said Lawless’s condition has improved tenfold since they sought help in December 2016.

“It’s important to be connected with the VA if you’re a veteran because they offer a wide range of benefits that they might not even realize that they could use,” Wick said. “…I would emphasize getting veterans in there and getting them advocates such as their family or friends. If you know a veteran, you’re making sure they’re cared for.”

Before connecting with Island County Veterans Services, Durand was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and faced steep medical costs.

He has since received further assistance with the disease, as well as help paying for rent and other medical expenses. A Dolomite walker was also provided to him by the Veteran’s Administration.

Durand said he has also expanded his social circles, which is in stark contrast to the past few years of his life that he has spent shuttered away from the community.

While his physical condition has improved from where it was two months ago, Durand still needs a cane to maneuver around the house and cannot stand up for too long without needing rest.

But, Durand said things could have been a lot worse had it not been for his wife and Island County Veterans Services.

“If it hadn’t been for them, I would be sleeping in a cardboard box and homeless as so many of my VA friends have,” Durand said.