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Jackson County helps veterans get benefits they earned

While serving on board an aircraft carrier during World War II, Ernie Gallo survived 17 battle engagements against Japanese forces and a typhoon with 140 mph winds and 70-foot waves.

The battles left him with burst eardrums.

"There was a war on. We were shooting at the enemy and they were shooting at us," Gallo recalled.

Gallo, now 95 and a Medford resident, received help from the Jackson County Veteran Services Office and the Department of Veterans Affairs to get hearing aids — expensive devices not covered by Medicare.

The county office helps veterans navigate the often-complex federal VA system.

"I can't say enough good things about the Jackson County Veteran Services Office," Gallo said. "They are a great, wonderful organization. They do take care of the vets. Friends of mine have been there, too. They'll send you in the right direction. Both the VA and the Veteran Services Office are marvelous."

Working with a five-member staff and a budget of $487,740 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, the county's Veteran Services Office helped local veterans receive $103 million in benefits they earned. The help is free to veterans — who number more than 20,000 in Jackson County.

An Institute of Defense Analysis found that veterans who get help from such offices qualify for more than double the compensation they would receive if they tried to navigate the VA system alone.

The VA benefit system is technically a legal system. In order to qualify, veterans must file a claim proving they are eligible for benefits and back the claim with legal, military and medical evidence.

"It can be confusing and stressful," said Jackson County Veteran Services Manager Bob Carson. "Veterans with representation receive significantly more than unrepresented veterans. We know how the VA works."

The office helps veterans on a variety of fronts, including helping them qualify for disability benefits.

Monthly disability payments range from about $133 for a veteran with no dependents who is deemed 10 percent disabled, to more than $3,000 per month for a fully disabled veteran with dependents, according to VA compensation rates.

"The range of injuries is head-to-toe," Carson said. "If you can think of a physical or mental condition, we see it here."

Like Gallo, many people in the military suffer hearing damage.

Carson, who served as a military police officer for four years and was exposed to small arms fire, himself suffers from chronic tinnitus, the perception of high-pitched noise when no external sound is present. He uses a white noise machine in his office to fight the tinnitus.

Veterans can suffer hearing loss after being exposed to noise from aircraft, ship engine rooms, gunfire, explosions and other loud noises, he said.

"I've had a lot of veterans come in with hearing loss. It really does have an adverse impact on their ability to communicate with their friends, family and employers," Carson said.

Many soldiers are coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with back and neck injuries.

"It's all related to the heavy loads and physical activity under those loads. They've had to twist and make maneuvers in combat," Carson said.

One of the most visible injuries to veterans is paralysis and limb loss. In addition to disability payments, the VA has other, more obscure benefits — including a clothing allowance for veterans who use wheelchairs or wear prosthetic limbs that tend to wear out or tear clothing, according to the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs.

With ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and aging populations of World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans, the Jackson County Veteran Services Office is seeing a surge in demand for the help it offers.

Currently, the office handles approximately 7,000 veteran visits per year — nearly double the number it handled in 2008, Carson said.

Advances in battlefield medicine mean more soldiers are surviving catastrophic injuries, but often with major long-term problems, including traumatic brain injury.

They often have difficult and complex cases, Carson said.

Many veterans have served multiple tours, putting them at greater risk of physical and psychological injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

The VA has also recognized that exposure to Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War can trigger illness, including various types of cancer that emerge later in life. The children of Vietnam veterans are also at greater risk of spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spine.

Gulf War veterans are more prone to chronic multi-system illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Former prisoners of war can suffer a range of maladies — including psychosis, arthritis in injured joints and a host of conditions caused by malnutrition and infection from viruses, bacteria and parasites.

Carson said he rarely sees a veteran trying to pursue a fraudulent claim by faking an injury or illness.

"But if we do, we can decline to file a claim if we think they are trying to defraud the VA. Most of the people we see are very genuine in their pursuit of benefits," he said.

In addition to aiding injured and sick veterans, the Jackson County Veteran Services Office can help in other areas, such as providing guidance on VA home loans and education benefits. 

Carson said mortgage lenders can usually help veterans with VA loans, and the Post 9/11 GI Bill is easier to use than the older Montgomery GI Bill for education benefits. But veterans still often need guidance.

The office can refer veterans to agencies and nonprofit groups for help in finding employment and housing after leaving active duty, he said.

John Howard, the former director of constituent services for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said he would often send veterans to the Jackson County office.

"I dealt with them multiple times a week. They help veterans put together a claim, file a claim and gather data for a claim," he said. "Virtually everyone I sent over there got the help they needed to file a claim."

He said veterans often don't know how to navigate the system and are missing key pieces of evidence and documents, such as their service records.

Additionally, a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri destroyed up to 18 million personnel records in 1973 — affecting veterans of several wars.

Carson said Jackson County commissioners, the Jackson County Budget Committee and the county's administration have long been supportive of funding for the office.

"When we say we honor veterans, we not only mean it, but we back it up with actions and money," he said.

About 80 percent of the office's $486,706 budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 comes from county coffers, with the rest coming from a state grant.

With more than $100 million flowing into Jackson County from veteran benefits, Howard said the county's veteran services office is a great investment.

"It's an absolutely incredibly valuable service. Those are the best-spent dollars in the county," he said.

Carson said the incoming federal dollars circulate through the local economy and can reduce veterans' reliance on safety net programs.

"It's an economic development program. We get $103 million in our community for our investment," he said. "That's a pretty good return for the dollar."

As for Gallo, the World War II veteran, he said he is grateful for the commitment the county office and VA have shown to him so many years after his combat days.

"I never expected that kind of treatment and service," he said.

To make an appointment with a veteran services officer, call the Jackson County Veteran Services Office at 541-774-8214. The office is at 1000 E. Main St., Medford.

Visit www.jacksoncounty.org/vets for more information.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.