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Okanogan veterans reach out to serve today’s veterans

Volunteer Veterans Service Officer (VSO) Michael Stewart thinks fewer Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will run away to live in isolation as Vietnam veterans like him did, because there are more programs in place to help them transition from combat to civilian life.

Michael Stewart
Michael Stewart

The young vets, whom he helps apply for benefits, are dealing with physical, emotional, spiritual and mental wounds that he understands.  Plus they face a tough economy with few opportunities for employment. 

So Michael and others on the Okanogan County Veterans Board are hosting a Volunteer Services Officer Training, and Homeless and Incarcerated Veterans Seminar, gathering veterans’ and community organizations from five Northeast Washington counties—Douglas, Chelan, Ferry, Stevens and Okanogan—Monday through Wednesday, Oct. 17 to 19, at the Armory, 101 Armory Ave., in Okanogan.

Along with Michael, his colleagues, volunteer veterans service officer Dale White and Shane Barton also of Tonasket, are helping organize the event.

They are also among veterans who have established the U.S. Armed Forces Legacy Project in Tonasket and helped bring health care for veterans to the North Valley Hospital there.

Michael and Dale first met in 1979 when Michael was living on Whidbey Island, and sought medical help for health issues and for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after Vietnam.  For 30 years, Dale worked with veterans in Seattle before retiring and moving to Tonasket.

On Oct. 19, area county commissioners and heads of organizations will meet to learn what each is doing to address the myriad of issues common to veterans.  Organizers encourage bringing county resources together to save funds for all programs and provide more connected services, Michael said.

Three years ago, Michael and Dale informed Okanogan County commissioners that veterans brought $3.6 million in federal compensation—disability checks and pensions—into the county. He estimates that since then they have helped veterans apply for nearly $1 million more in benefits.  They also help veterans with incomes less than $1,600 per month with food, clothing, rent, utility bills and medical bills as a “possible hand up, not a hand out,” he said.

While farm communities supplied many veterans to wars, Michael said there was also an influx of Vietnam vets into the county in the 1970s.  Many were running away, drawn by the isolation of living in the hills. 

Dale suggests that, depending on how homelessness is defined, 43 percent of veterans in the county qualify as homeless because they have no running water, live in primitive places and live with family or friends.  About 300,000 veterans nationwide are homeless.

Based on benefit and pension payments, Michael stated that there are more than 4,400 veterans in Okanogan county.

“It’s win-win for counties to invest in their veteran population,” he said.

The County Veterans Board recently persuaded the County Commissioners to create a paid county position for County Wide Service Officer (CWSO).  They hired a veterans service officer, Shane Barton, a 1987 Tonasket High School graduate, who joined the Army and served with the 10th Special Services for 10 years.  After traveling in Europe, Southwest Asia and Bosnia, he spent 15 years in business management.  A disabled veteran, he recently moved back to Tonasket.

“We have funds to put the October seminar on, and we expect 12 to 15 VSOs to come.  VSOs will help vets with the process of filling out benefit forms in a completed claims format, which increases the ability to begin receiving checks in six to eight months,” said Michael, noting need for more because of the many veterans in the area.

They also help with death benefits, burial costs, education benefits, transitional guidance and taking photos for mail-in ID cards.

The seminar will cover compensation and pensions, death compensation, unemployment issues, vocational rehabilitation, mental health and faith community response to these issues.  On Wednesday, the focus is implement solutions to the homeless and veterans court issues.

Michael and Dale have involved the Colville Confederate Tribe—whose warriors they have helped receive their earned benefits—as well as veterans in county American Legion posts, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Vietnam Veterans, the Veterans Coalition, the Purple Heart Organization, the Paralyzed Veterans Association, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, North Valley Hospital in Tonasket, county commissioners and Spokane Veterans Administration Medical Center officials.

“All organizations need to hold hands and meet face to face to use resources to better serve and to draw funds into the county to improve programs,” he said.

Nationwide, Michael said there is a backlog of approximately 1 million cases of vets filing for health care and support benefits.   With anticipated cases to be reviewed, plus new cases, the system has slowed down.

“There was also a backlog after Vietnam, so organizations built up, then downsized.  Now we need to train more volunteer VSOs to strengthen response for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Michael.

Like him, many volunteer VSOs are retired and disabled.  They volunteer as “giveback” to other combat vets.

After high school in Tacoma, Michael served three-and-a-half years in the Navy and then three-and-a-half years in the Army, serving two partial tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.  Wounded in the first Tet offensive, he was sent home and spent six months in the hospital before returning to Vietnam.  He recorded his oral history as a sergeant and tank commander. It’s at the Purple Heart Museum in Windsor, N.Y.

The U.S. Armed Forces Legacy Project in Tonasket, which area veterans are developing on half an acre just south of the city line on Highway 97, will include a library to house such oral histories and will have a service office for veterans and families.

Eight walls will hold 1,040 plaques with names of living and deceased veterans. Four walls now display more than 500 names of service members from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The project started in 2006 as an initiative of George Frank, a World War II Air Force veteran, then in his 70s.  He wanted to build a memorial and, with the initial support of the local American Legion Post, approached the city.

So far, they have raised $150,000 for the project through donations, fund raising, small grants and selling sponsored basalt memorial pillars and plaques.

The office building, which will be built in 2012, will be used along with the small space Michael, Dale and Shane use as a veterans service office from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays at North Valley Hospital.

They set up there because in February 2011 the Tonasket Family Medical Clinic, located in the hospital, contracted with the Spokane Veterans Administration Medical Center to provide primary care, lab work, radiology imaging and emergent pharmacy needs for veterans who live in and near Okanogan County.

The Legacy Project office will have showers homeless vets can use, plus access to DSHS, unemployment and mental health services. 

Michael said veterans hope the hospital will eventually provide other veterans’ clinics for such health issues as cancer, hearing, physical therapy and surgery.  Federal funds now reimbursing travel to Spokane or Seattle for medical care can be used to help fund those services to “provide integrated health care to keep vets close to home,” he said.

For Michael, medical care turned his life around.  With Dale’s support, he was diagnosed with a rare adrenal gland tumor that fed his fight-and-flight response in war and afterwards.

“For three years, I traveled the world chasing a combat high,” he said.  “Dale helped me resolve my health issues and file for my earned benefits.  He made an appointment for me to go to the VA hospital where the tumor was diagnosed and removed in 1980.”

In 1982, after he completed medical care, Michael moved to Chesaw in the mountains northeast of Tonasket.  He now lives outside Tonasket.

After going the drug route for a while, he faced what he had done and stopped “hiding behind chemicals.” He learned lessons and has now put together insights from what he learned about religions during his travels in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“I had a spiritual transformation, so spirituality has been added to my tool box as a human being, giving me power to do what is better and best,” Michael said.

“I can go into homes and talk with veterans about issues they previously could not talk about.  My spiritual side gives me strength to help,” said Michael, who has put 96,000 miles on his 2009 Subaru driving veterans to Seattle and Spokane.  

For information, call 486-2144 or email simmr25163@yahoo.com.