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County VA office stays up-to-date to help vets

Posted: September 16, 2011 4:13 p.m.
Updated: September 21, 2011 5:00 a.m.

For nearly 20 years, Kershaw County Veterans Affairs (VA) Officer Billy Bell and his assistant, Barbara Ray, have strived to help veterans in the community.

The county’s VA Service Office handles a budget of $35.8 million, a sum formulated by the federal government to help with medical, educational and other benefits for soldiers returning home and longtime veterans.

“We contribute and help bring a lot of money to Kershaw County,” Bell said. “We’re also told that we have a very good operation here.”

According to the last official estimate, about 5,600 veterans live in the county. Ray said the numbers are expected to grow as more veterans come home and retire in the area. With this expected increase and the added complexities of war, procedures at the office are routinely being updated.

“New things are always popping up,” Bell said. “We have so many more veterans breaking out with all kinds of illnesses. As the medical knowledge grows, we find out more about what these men were exposed to. There is also more of a definitive cause of what these disabilities are.”

Specifically, Bell and Ray point to the increased recognition of ailments like post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, which in the past was simply classified as “shell shock.”

Since the office now deals with more multifaceted information, Bell and Ray are required to attend semi-annual training sessions in order to become more involved with the issues facing veterans, particularly those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bell and Ray are also tasked with interviewing veterans or their dependents to determine what kind of benefits the soldiers and their families are entitled to including pension benefits and funeral arrangements.

 “I’m finding out that people still don’t know that they can ask for certain services,” Ray said. “However, more information is out there now than ever before because of the publicity and the fact that you see it more on television.”

 With this increased recognition, the perception toward veterans has also seemingly changed over the years.

“It seems there is more of a value now of what you did for your country. We now know more of what those men are going through,” Ray said.  

A growing problem facing the office is the process of going paperless and relying more on computers, which has led to several mishaps with veterans’ records.

“A few years ago, we had a veteran who somehow or another was reported as deceased, but he really wasn’t deceased,” Ray said. “His checks stopped and he was in assisted living and he consequently could not pay his assisted living costs. We actually had him write a letter saying that he was alive and well. That’s what happens when you go paperless -- one person makes a mistake on the computer and it could change the whole life of an individual.”

She added that it is also difficult sometimes to prove a case of service, especially with older veterans.

“Records get blown up or sometimes records just never arrive. Some of the men can’t even prove they were in the service because records sometimes just get destroyed,” Bell said

Even with these procedural headaches, Bell and Ray emphasized that the job is extraordinarily gratifying, especially when they get to the see the expression on the faces of the veterans who have received helped.

“When you work at the VA Office, you learn what these men actually had to handle. It’s one of the most honorable jobs to sit here and give them your time and give back to someone who served. They were the ones who gave you the right to even have your job in the first place,” Ray said.

The Kershaw County Veterans Service Office is located in the Kershaw County Government Center, 515 Walnut St., Camden, and can be reached at 425-1521.

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