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Billy Bell spent 19 years helping vets get their benefits

Posted: May 29, 2012 5:14 p.m.
Updated: May 30, 2012 5:00 a.m.
Photo courtesy of American Legion Post 17/

Former Kershaw County Veterans Affairs Officer Billy Bell receives a plaque of appreciation from American Legion Post 17 Commander Richard Lackey during an April 1 reception.

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Billy Bell is a Korean War veteran who came home and began supporting his fellow veterans by joining the American Legion. For 19 of the many years since, he served as Kershaw County’s Veterans Affair officer. He retired Jan. 1 and was honored by American Legion Post No. 17 -- of which he is a member -- in early April.

Bell said he became the county’s VA officer because of his service to the Legion.

“I went to Congress on ‘Hill Day’ and would see our congressmen and try to get them to sign bills on VA benefits,” Bell said in his old office at the Kershaw County Government Center. “I was the Legion’s state department commander and an alternate on the Legion’s national executive committee.”

He would serve on the executive committee -- even while performing his VA officer duties -- until his wife, Conney, died last year.

“I got a lot of my facts and figures from the committee even though I served in the VA office,” Bell said.

Unofficially, Bell has been a Legion member for 57 years; he missed a year while working for a pharmaceutical company in Greenville. He rejoined after that year and also worked for his family’s company, Boykin Supply Co., which supplied coal to schools.

Born in the town of Kershaw, he returned to the area after “getting through with the drug company” in order to take care of his parents.

In 1993, former Kershaw County VA Officer J. A. McDonald retired. That’s when Bell took over, after being nominated for the job by the county’s State House delegation.

“The senior senators in the region make the recommendation, then a two-thirds majority of the House representatives and Senators and then it goes to the governor,” Bell said.

The VA officer’s main goal: to get what benefits veterans are entitled to.

“We look first at whether they’ve been honorably discharged,” Bell said. “They actually give us power of attorney to represent them for their VA benefits. We pursue educational benefits, service-connected disability, pensions for vets with needs. We would pursue -- and argue -- that sometimes.”

For example, a fellow Korean War vet came into the office one year with a “letter of disagreement” keeping the man from getting benefits for being hurt while serving.

“His records showed he was a cook instead of in the infantry. I wondered how he got hurt, so I went investigating. It took seven years to obtain his benefits and, finally, had to go to court. It got bounced back to the VA and proved he had been a trainer at Fort Jackson where he suffered his injuries.

“They started him at $8,000. We showed he was unemployable and went back to the original claim, his medical records. In the end, he received $250,000 in benefits,” Bell said.

Barbara Ray, an assistant in the county’s VA office for one year longer than Bell was VA officer, is taking over as permanent VA officer. Bell said when he and Ray started, the Kershaw County veterans received, perhaps, $ million in benefits.

“In 2010, we brought in $30 million,” he said.

Bell calls being a VA officer “more than a full time job.” For example, there’s two years of training on federal policy. It’s worth it, though, he said.

“Look at all the people who benefit in Kershaw County,” Bell said. “For them, it’s tax free money. I have employed veterans who get some level of benefits, while unemployed or disabled veterans get up to 100 percent of their benefits.”

Bell estimates there are 6,700 veterans in Kershaw County, along with spouses and dependants.

“It’s approximately 10 percent of the (county’s) population. With spouses and dependants, it’s probably 24,000 people,” he said.

The reasons veterans need to seek benefits vary, but Bell said most center around their health. A lot of veterans, he said, suffer from heart disease, for example.

“They can get between $70,000 and $140,000 in benefits in some cases. We can get some wild stories, we can get some sad stories. That’s why I had so much joy when I saw the expressions of people who got what they deserved,” Bell said.

He said he has also seen plenty of veterans with undiagnosed ailments.

“But if we can prove it, we can help them get paid for it,” Bell said.

That includes post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. That’s because, he said, doctors diagnose it now.

“We’re seeing a lot more of that than ever before,” Bell said of vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Doctors treat for it; it’s very serious.”

Also serious are brain and other injuries caused by roadside bombs, but Bell said there are also plenty of cases of conditions such as high blood pressure and other ailments related to “foreign conditions.”

“We’re just now recognizing those things. We’ve had to go back and see, yes, it really did happen when they served,” he said.

What is Bell doing now that he isn’t at the VA office every day?

He and his family have a more than 150-acre farm in an area off Brevard Road and U.S. 601 that’s been divided between himself and his children.

“All but one of my children has built a house out there,” Bell said. “I take care of my yard and we’ve starting planting pecan trees on one of my daughters’ acreage.

And he’s still a member of the Post 17 as well as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and still on the Legion’s executive committee.

“I’ve been a member of the Legion so long -- I just can’t give up the Legion,” he said.

In the meantime, he has every confidence in Ray to help veterans as she has for 20 years.

“You won’t find anyone any more caring of our veterans than Barbara,” Bell said. “We’ve always gotten along -- sometimes she’d even my questions before I could ask them. Our motto has always been ‘to get what they’re due.’

“I’ve enjoyed this job -- there was a lot of self-satisfaction. I’ll tell you that when I saw someone’s smile, I knew I’d helped someone.”


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