With Veterans Benefits, Knowing is Half the Battle

South Coast Today

May 27, 2007 – Donat “Dan” LeBlanc clearly remembers the day nearly 40 years ago when a Marine Corps bureaucrat, running down a list of questions intended to gauge the extent of his disability from a fresh war wound, asked, “Are you right-handed or left-handed?”

Sitting there with only one arm, the young Mr. LeBlanc nearly answered, “Are you stupid?” It was pretty clear that the enemy machine gunner in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province had taken his right arm, part of his right shoulder and, as it happened, a piece of his lung.

“Left-handed” was his bitter answer, because the answer seemed obvious.

Now he knows better. He knows he got caught on a technicality.

“He didn’t ask me what I was BEFORE I lost my arm,” Mr. LeBlanc remembers, in which case the answer would have been different — with very different consequences. Losing one’s dominant arm in combat qualified as a “major” injury; losing the other one was “minor.”

Mr. LeBlanc soon retired from the Marine Corps after two years with an injury judged as 90 percent disability, which qualified him for all of $156 a month.

It wasn’t until five years later, when he was working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), that Mr. LeBlanc “realized I was getting (expletive deleted).”

He reapplied to the VA for benefits, and at last corrected the error, hiking his disability pay with a new rating of 100 percent disability.

Those 10 percentage points made a world of difference. The checks increased to almost $700 a month then and about $2,000 a month today.

During nearly three decades of employment with the VA, Mr. LeBlanc, who today is New Bedford’s veterans agent, learned that there are countless men and women like him, young and old. They — or their survivors — may qualify in one way or another for benefits, but don’t even know what might be out there for them. Often, they don’t even know the questions to ask.

What’s more, once someone is discharged or retired from the service, the chances are slim that somebody is going to track him or her down to ask about it and offer help.

Today, it’s a veterans agent’s job to try to find people who qualify for the VA’s assistance. In the past five years, Mr. LeBlanc’s client list has grown from 59 to 210 and counting.

In the weeks leading up to Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the work turns toward the task of making certain that deceased veterans’ graves are honored and decorated with the requisite flags.

But the rest of Mr. LeBlanc’s year is spent shaking the benefits tree for the living.

He’s not the only one. Massachusetts is the only state that requires every community to employ a veterans agent — and provides some state and some local funding support for those veterans and their survivors who really need it.

Veteran at the end of his rope

Dartmouth Veterans Agent Shawn Goldstein, a Marine Corps veteran of both Iraq wars, is half Mr. LeBlanc’s age but is learning quickly from his mentor. In short order, Mr. Goldstein has expanded his client list from just 10 to more than 30.

These are clients like Andrew Nolin of Fairhaven. At age 81, Mr. Nolin says that only a few weeks ago he was pretty much at the end of his rope. After paying the rent on his subsidized apartment and his other expenses, he had literally nothing left.

“God forbid, my refrigerator was empty. I ended up going to the Red Cross and they helped me with food,” he said. “Sometimes I didn’t have a nickel in my pocket.”

Mr. Nolin, a widower of 21 years, was broke, living on Social Security, a meager retirement account from the Acushnet Co. long gone.

Until, that is, someone suggested he contact Jim Cochran, the Fairhaven veterans agent.

“I was told that they said there’s no God, but I think there is one, because of this man,” he said. “This man is the right guy for that job, I’ll tell you that. He pulled me right out of my misery.”

It took him until this year to find out, but as it happens, Mr. Nolin’s two years in the Army, serving in Japan in the post-World War II occupation, qualified him for benefits after all these years. When he contacted the veterans agent, his whole life changed.

He went down the list: Mr. Cochran arranged for his Medicare payments to be taken care of, along with the Blue Cross supplemental policy. He was told to go down to the pharmacy and pick up the prescriptions he had been scrimping on for lack of funds.

“Then my glasses broke. I said I was going to solder them or something. He told me, ‘Go get your glasses. We’ll take care of it.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, are you telling me the truth?’ He said, ‘I’m calling them now, so do it.’ ”

It didn’t end there. “My teeth are worn out. It’s been 40 years since I had them checked,” Mr. Nolin said. “He said, ‘Pick any dentist you want. We’re going to take care of it.’

“It’s unbelievable. And he doesn’t make you feel like a chiseler.

“I feel like the luckiest man in the world now. … He’s just the greatest guy I ever met. You ask for help at any other place and they put you down. He doesn’t do this. He makes you feel like a human. I didn’t know if I was dreaming. That’s how bad I was.”

Veterans who know the ropes

Mr. Cochran, like Mr. LeBlanc, is someone who knows the ropes. He knows what questions to ask, which drawers to open, which doors need a knock. The veterans they help, along with veterans’ widows and families, all too often don’t even realize they qualify, or are too proud to ask, or, as Mr. LeBlanc said, may have been turned down years ago and are skittish about trying again.

Many of them have been out of the military for so long they have almost no idea what benefits there might be for them. A visit to a Web site might only compound the confusion. There’s a 150-page booklet from the Department of Veterans Affairs to explain, but Mr. LeBlanc held up another book, five times as thick, that he bought just to explain the first booklet.

To make things worse, Mr. LeBlanc said, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration are barely on speaking terms. The VA had to fight just to get access to the injured soldiers inside the Walter Reed Army Hospital, to tell them about what they might qualify for.

Then there is the small matter of the VA’s disability rating system versus the Pentagon’s. There is the problem of some benefits cancelling others, in particular a supplemental death benefit for survivors. A special commission has been holding hearings around the country and recommendations are expected in October.

Mr. Cochran said, “It’s a huge quagmire out there, to be honest. There could be benefits in two or three places. Nothing is coordinated.”

There are also some false leads, he said. Well-intentioned organizations sometimes post announcements that say, for example, home health care is available for veterans, who may later learn that only a few of them qualify. That could discourage any further investigation.

But as the years pass, expenses increase, and life gets tougher, veterans and their families who have been resolutely self-sufficient for decades may find themselves out of options. Those in Massachusetts might not realize that beyond whatever the VA or Pentagon might provide, this state offers a rather extraordinary package of benefits to veterans who qualify, as many of them do, but may not know it. Known as Chapter 115, it pays death and medical benefits, but it helps a lot to have a veterans agent handle the paperwork, which most of them are more than happy to do.

Help, without judgment

Margaret Smith of New Bedford was caring for her ailing husband, William, an Army veteran of the Korean conflict who had suffered a stroke about four years ago and who was worsening, when he passed on a suggestion. He had been watching a lot of television — local access programs, she said, and Dan LeBlanc was often on.

“He told me, ‘You know. I’m not going to be around long. When I go, go see this guy Dan. He helps everybody.’ When he passed away a month later, I thought about that and talked to Dan,” she said.

“I told him I just became a widow, and we had a talk about things. He asked me for different information, where I was living, what I was paying in rent, and he started talking about what he could do for me.”

It wasn’t long before she moved to a much more affordable apartment in the city’s far North End. She said she no longer has to worry about Medicare or supplemental insurance premiums, either.

Through it all, she heaped praise on Mr. LeBlanc for being supportive, and not the least bit judgmental. “When things get tough, you don’t want to ask for help like this,” she said.

Norman and Lucille Pepin of New Bedford, he a World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps, know what Mrs. Smith means. “People don’t like to tell people how much money they have — insurance, savings, whatever,” Mr. Pepin said. “That’s one of the reasons I think some people I’ve spoken to don’t want to apply. Which is dumb, when you think about it, really.”

It was about a year and a half ago that Mr. and Mrs. Pepin went to see Mr. LeBlanc, who soon enrolled them for state benefits that pay their Medicare premiums and cover all their prescription expenses.

“He’s amazing,” Mr. Pepin said of Mr. LeBlanc. “This program has meant a better quality of life for people our age. It’s only been a year and a half since we’ve been on it, and it’s amazing.”

Mrs. Pepin is especially eager to tell young veterans that they, too, probably qualify for these benefits, though they might not know it.

Much has changed since many elder veterans left the service, although for a long time that wasn’t the case. Mr. LeBlanc said, “from the end of World War II until the end of the ’70s, a lot of benefits from the VA never changed.” The survivor benefit for someone killed in action was $10,000 40 years ago, and only $12,000 until very recently when Congress, under public pressure, increased it to $100,000.

In past years, veterans got little if any advice on what benefits they could obtain later on; they were left to fend for themselves to find out. Today, Mr. LeBlanc said, the families of those killed in wartime are assigned a casualty officer to walk them through the process. In the case of local men killed in Iraq, he said, that help has apparently been enough that they didn’t need the local veterans agent and didn’t accept his offers to help.

But others miss out, he said. One Brockton veteran lost limbs in Iraq and became a cause celebre as people raised money for him; Mr. LeBlanc said he evidently didn’t know that the VA was ready to pay the bills for prosthetics, if asked.

Others may believe that the benefits they have been collecting are all they are entitled to. Mr. LeBlanc said his own aunt was surprised to learn upon her veteran husband’s death that she could collect from the state program for health insurance and prescription benefits. She was collecting “$21 a month and that hadn’t changed in 30 years,” he said.

“You’d be surprised to discover the number of widows who are living better with their husbands dead than when they were alive,” Mr. LeBlanc said. The state benefits — one-quarter financed by the local government — can amount to hundreds of dollars a month, a huge difference in the life of someone on a fixed income.

The difficulty is in getting the word out.

For that, veterans agents are making a point of visiting senior centers, appearing on cable TV and inquiring about people they might learn about.

In Dartmouth, Mr. Goldstein is taking things a step further: On Aug 4., at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Cross Road, he’s organizing a veterans cookout. “I’ve invited 50 different organizations to come and tell about what they do for assistance for veterans and family members,” Mr. Goldstein said.

And with any luck, there will soon be a lot more veterans who will find themselves saying, as Mr. Nolin does, that “I feel like I’m floating on air. I can’t believe it.”

Contact Steve Urbon at surbon@s-t.com

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