Local veterans welcome official

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Marshall County Veterans Services Office welcomed a special visitor Thursday.

Wendell Cheek, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Veterans Affairs, is making a series of visits to veterans services offices across the mid-state, seeking answers to the question: "How can we best serve the veterans of Tennessee?"

"You understand the needs of our veterans," said Dean Delk at the start of the meeting. "We appreciate you coming."

Register of Deeds D. W. Weaver echoed that sentiment, stating, "We try to get everything we can for the veterans. I'm glad to see you here, Wendell."

Marshall County's veterans are lucky to have two dedicated and knowledgeable men working five days a week in the office at the old Hardison School.

Billy Hill and his assistant Rick Roberts have doubled the benefits coming in to Marshall County for veterans. Last year, $2 million was distributed to 1,900 veterans.

"Not bad for a county this size," exclaimed Hill.

Cheek asked for questions and comments, and Hill asked, "Why does it take so long to get a response back on claims?"

Cheek explained that the claims process is a complex one, involving many people. He said there are time limits on each step of the process, but, even so, "It's not uncommon to take a year and a half or two years."

"The best thing," he advised, "is to have all the documentation available up front."

Cheek went on to say that the Veterans Administration office in Tennessee has the highest rating for claims processed, but they also have a huge backlog, and are currently running with 20 hours of mandatory overtime for each worker.

Roberts said that he's worked with veterans who moved to Marshall County from Florida and Ohio, and both told him the TDVA was much easier to work with.

Cheek has only been on the job since May 2.

His position was created by Gov. Haslam's Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, Col. Many-Bears Grinder. She also named two assistant commissioners, one each for east and west Tennessee.

Cheek takes care of 14 counties in Middle Tennessee. He has oversight of veterans' claims and interacts with members of the legislature. Cheek said he thought this would keep him close to Nashville from January to May, but he's free the rest of the year to visit county offices. He plans to have visited all his counties before the annual training days for veterans services officers in September.

The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't hire or fire -- or pay -- the county personnel, but they do train them.

"These guys here need a raise," exclaimed Cheek. "They're carrying a big load."

There are over 500,000 veterans in Tennessee, and an estimated 1.5 million family members. There's a wide spectrum of veterans, from World War II survivors who don't use the Internet, to vets of the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan who fully embrace the digital world.

"We're glad to assist you with outreach," Cheek said. "Veterans just don't realize the benefits they have. We need help in getting the word out to our vets."

"We're here to help," Hill agreed. "We're here to assist vets to apply - we're not the ones who have control."

He noted that especially Vietnam-era veterans may be eligible for new benefits relating to exposure to Agent Orange.

"I'm going to put advertising in our budget next year," Hill said, warning county commissioners Tom Sumners and Delk, who were present at the meeting, that the veterans services office would be asking for more money in the 2012-2013 budget.