Growing number of services available to veterans

RichardVoutour1

by Ray Tatten

After over 23 years of active duty with the U.S. Marines, 1st Sgt. Richard Voutour is a civilian again. He currently serves as Veterans’ Services Officer for Sterling, Leominster and Lancaster, dedicated to helping veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned. Sterling Meetinghouse News met with Voutour at his office located in the Sterling Senior Center to learn more about the assistance and programs available to area veterans, their spouses and widows.

SMN: What are the major challenges facing our veterans?

RV: That varies, since there are two separate groups. Young veterans, who may have been deployed multiple times to actual war zones or dangerous areas, struggle with transition to civilian life. After two, three, or four tours, they find themselves suddenly alone, without the camaraderie they had known and depended on. They have no peers, and no one to look out for them. Families and spouses can’t fill that void or often even understand it. Even with a job, new veterans struggle to find their place in regular life. For older veterans, the problems are more often financial. Many in retirement are outliving their money, while facing daily decisions as basic as whether or not they can afford to eat.

SMN: As a society, how are we helping veterans deal with these challenges?

RV: First, there are tons of services available. The military has done a better job on a one to one basis. The federal Veterans’ Administration offers extensive medical services with additional coverage added regularly for what’s considered presumptive conditions that are suspected as a result of deployment, such as Agent Orange symptoms. The list is growing, and includes cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Hearing loss due to loud environments caused by machinery, weapons, and explosions, is another example of a prevalent presumptive condition with treatment covered. Insofar as financial help, the VA offers home loans with no money down and no private mortgage insurance. Depending on income levels, the Veterans Administration offers supplemental living help. Often an older veteran only starts to seek help after retirement or after a spouse’s death. Veterans’ widows often struggle for years after the death of their spouse, not realizing that benefits continue to be available to them. Health care coverage is available at VA hospitals and clinics, and can include prescriptions as well.

SMN: How is the Veterans’ Administration addressing the problem of suicides among veterans?

RV: Massachusetts has a program called Statewide Advocacy for Veterans’ Empowerment, (SAVE), working as a liaison between veterans and their families and various federal and state agencies. The fundamental principle of the SAVE program is to advocate for veterans who are not able to obtain the benefits they have earned due to institutional or personal barriers. When an at-risk individual is identified, we send a peer, a combat veteran, to talk with him or her. We’ve found that can make a big difference, since a person may be considering suicide because he or she thinks no one cares.

SMN: In addition to federal government programs, does Massachusetts offers its own roster of veterans’ services?

RV: Massachusetts is a role model. We offer the best services by a wide margin. We have a vocal and aggressive lobby. We have a very active state organization, the Massachusetts Veterans’ Services Officers Association. In Massachusetts, we also have great support from our elected officials. By law, we have established a veterans’ services presence in every town. I handle Leominster and Lancaster, as well as Sterling.

SMN: What additional services does Massachusetts provide?

RV: Under Chapter 115, we assist with medical expenses for lower income veterans and widows. We assist with burial expenses, including veterans’ cemeteries in Agawam and Winchendon, in which all expenses relating to burial are free. There are assisted living facilities available in Chelsea and Holyoke. Depending on disability rating, there are property tax exemptions as well.

SMN: Are any career-related services available?

RV: Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (“VETS”) offers local “One Stop Career Centers” in Worcester and Leominster, each with a rep to help veterans find jobs, including resume building, interview skills and job searching.
Massachusetts provides civil service preference for veterans. Candidates automatically move to the top of the list, with the disabled receiving additional preference. As a natural transition from the military, veterans gravitate to public safety jobs like police, fire, and security. Since it’s what they know, they bring confidence to dangerous assignments and to jobs that may include handling conflict and firearms.
Massachusetts allows trade certificates for electricians, plumbers and other trades to transfer, while waiving the fees. The Small Business Administration offers seminars and entrepreneurial help. Massachusetts casinos must buy supplies from a vet-owned company.

SMN: What’s available for veterans who want to pursue their education?

RV: Since 9/11, the GI Bill provides free tuition to any state school. Northeastern University in Boston has its Yellow Ribbon Program that provides free tuition to veterans. The bill will pay for up to 48 months of school.

SMN:. What about reservists? Do they qualify for benefits?

RV: If a reservist is mobilized for at least 180 days, or 90 days in wartime as we saw with 9/11, they are considered veterans and qualify.

SMN: What’s the most important message you have for veterans?

RV: We have help available. If they’re struggling with anything, or facing issues as basic as health care and food, we are here and we can help.

Richard Voutour’s main office is located in Leominster. To arrange an appointment, email rvoutour@leominster-ma.gov or call 978-534-7538. Office hours are Monday, Tuesday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 8 a.m. to noon; and Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. He is in Lancaster on Tuesdays, 8 a.m. to noon, and in Sterling on Fridays, 8 a.m. to noon. For an appointment in Sterling, call 978-422-3032.

The Mass Vets Advisor website at massvetsadvisor.org contains detailed information as well as a full range of resources and services that veterans can access.

The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.

Photo by by Ray Tatten: Richard Voutour

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