4,600 Veterans Attend Workshop on Benefits in Georgia

Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia)

December 5, 2008 – Army Maj. Freddie Zink is looking ahead to the future after sustaining a serious head injury in Iraq.

“They are not forcing me out,” Zink said Thursday at the Supermarket of Veterans Benefits program at the Columbus Civic Center. “I need to get out for my injury.”

Zink, a 49-year-old medical officer from Powdersville, S.C., was serving with a Reserve unit when his vehicle crashed into a hole. The August accident in Baghdad, Iraq, left Zink with a traumatic brain injury and possibly a medical discharge from the Army by early next year.

About 4,600 other veterans like Zink and their family members filled the arena floor of the Civic Center to learn more about benefits.

“I’m very pleased with the crowd,” said Pete Wheeler, commissioner of Georgia Department of Veterans Service, as he looked over a line that stretched from the arena to the entrance of the Civic Center. “We are overwhelmed now.”

Tom Cook, assistant commissioner, said 86 stations were set up to represent 45 agencies. Veterans could file claims, check on benefits, get answers to questions and take part in free health screenings where flu shots, blood pressure checks and other screenings were available.

“This is very helpful,” said Army Sgt. Debra Allen of Columbus. After a 22-year career in the Reserves and serving on active duty, Allen fears a shoulder injury will force her to leave the military early next year.

Assigned to a transportation unit at Fort Benning, Allen said she learned some details about benefits on post but nothing like the information representatives offered at the benefits program.

Johnny Kimbrough, an Army veteran, came to the Civic Center to check on a medical claim. “I think it’s all right,” Kimbrough, 59, said of the one-day program.

Theresa Williams, who served two years in the Army, said the information was useful to her. “I think it was pretty well organized,” said Williams, 46. “It was very helpful to me.”

She learned that she is eligible to apply for a Veterans Affairs home loan but found out too late about education benefits to help her become a nurse. “Your education benefits have to be used by a certain time,” Williams said. “I didn’t know I had any.”

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell Wilkerson of Albertville, Ala., has been in an Army uniform for 39 years but may be forced out for health reasons. The Army is evaluating whether Wilkerson can perform his job as a maintenance technician at age 59. “I probably will be out in January or February,” he said.

Wheeler said about 2,240 claims and transactions were processed during the day.

“We are extremely happy that we were able to assist so many veterans and their dependents today,” Wheeler said. “This program is extremely helpful for the veterans because so many different government agencies are assembled at a single location and claims are filed on the spot.”

Many of the veterans had no idea they were eligible for benefits. “Many of these claimants will be receiving benefits for the first time, and some of them had no idea that they were eligible for anything,” Wheeler said.

It’s been 17 years since the program was in Columbus and the fifth time since 1966 when about 5,000 veterans were served at the first event. Programs in other cities have included Albany, Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Brunswick, Dalton, Gainesville, Griffin, Macon, Rome, Savannah, Valdosta and Waycross.

“This is an excellent example of team effort and cooperation when so many different government agencies can be assembled at the same time in one location to allow a veteran to file a claim right on the spot,” Wheeler said.

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