Nearly 5,000 veterans are assisted in Sampson County on an annual basis, with more than $30 million in federal benefits dispensed to that section of the county’s populous. With the number of veterans only expected to grow, more help is needed at the local office to ensure the level of outreach is maintained, Veterans Service officer Ann Knowles said.
During a recent budget presentation, Knowles told county commissioners her budget request for 2014-15 would be a reduced one. However, the need for more assistance may necessitate a larger budget down the road.
Using a geographic distribution of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) expenditures in numerous counties in North Carolina, Knowles noted that Sampson County received $33.3 million in total expenditures in 2011, of which compensation and pension tallied approximately $20.3 million.
“These are benefits that were earned by sacrifice to protect others,” Knowles said.
Insurance, medical care and education and vocational rehab expenditures made up the majority of the remaining amount.
“Our purpose is to serve the veterans and the families in this county,” Knowles pointed out. “We bring into your county $33 million a year. Now they don’t write a check to the county for that, but they do write a check to Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion and Roses and Lowes and Belk and everywhere else in this county and all the insurance agencies. You get insurance payments and tax payments. It goes into this county, it just comes in through the people, the everyday citizens.”
“I can tell you, if we weren’t there to serve them,” she continued, “they would spend a lot of that money when they had to go out of town two or three times a month to get help.”
The Veterans Office takes its job seriously, she noted, and it does so with limited resources.
“You have an office that wants to help people, and they have the passion and the compassion for that. When you take our budget and you divide it by just a few below 5,000 (number of veterans) and you see how much per veteran it is costing this county, it’s not costing this county very much for this office to operate,” she remarked.
For 2013-14, the Veterans Service Office board approved budget was $136,287. The preliminary request for 2014-15 was not immediately available, but Knowles said it would be less.
“We strive to present a conservative budget that will serve the veteran population in the county,” Knowles said. “We cut where we could.”
Referring again to the chart of VA expenditures, she pointed out that Chatham County, which has 5,255 veterans of their 66,618 total population, which was comparable with Sampson’s 4,537 veterans among its total 64,121 population, according to the 2011 figures. Chatham veterans get $18.3 million in VA expenditures, little more than half of Sampson’s total.
“That’s a long way from $33 million,” said Knowles.
According to the statistics, Stanly County received $19.3 million for its 4,911 veterans, Franklin received $21.6 million for its 4,305 veterans and Beaufort, Surry, Columbus and Wilkes counties were all in the range of 4,300 to 5,500 veterans and received between $21 million to $28 million in VA benefits.
“I bring this to your attention because I’m pleading for that office … we need more help,” said Knowles. “Right now, I have 10 files on my desk. I take work home on the weekends, I take work home at night. We have a lot of work and, with the returning veterans, our workload is only going to increase. It’s not going to decrease.”
Recently, it was predicted that one out of every five servicemen and women returning from overseas conflicts are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress (Disorder), which affects those soldiers and their families, and requires more assistance.
“We need another full-time person,” Knowles said.
Along with Knowles, employee Sherry Hope, who is an accredited Veteran Service officer, assists the office on a regular basis. The local Veterans Office and Board of Elections have shared offices for over 30 years and Hope assists both offices as a shared employee.
“Board of Elections is very generous to me because they only use their half of our employee when there is an election. The other part of the time … (Elections director) Sylvia (Thornton) did it on her own, Donna (Marshburn) did it on hers and (current director) Ashley (Tew) will too because there are always veterans out in the lobby waiting to be seen. I’m pleading that we need some more help to take care of the veteran population,” Knowles commented.
Previously requesting a raise for Hope, Tew called her “invaluable” and said she is needed by Knowles more often than Tew.
“Sometimes I’m willing to give my half just like sometimes (Knowles) gives me her half,” Tew noted.
On top of what is likely to be a growing veteran population, by 2018, all claims will have to be filed electronically, something the Sampson office is already doing. Sampson has been among the pilot counties in programs regarding fully-developed claim applications and electronic filing for veteran benefits, and often helps those who may be located elsewhere.
“We do work for the surrounding counties because Sampson County has such a reputation of being veteran-friendly,” said Knowles. “You have never told me that I could never (assist) anybody that is not from Sampson County. I appreciate that because other counties do that, and then a veteran has to wait three months to get an appointment to fill out some paperwork. That can mean a lot of money for a person if they have to wait three months.”
Knowles often speaks to VA issues in Washington D.C. and shares her own experiences in Sampson, bringing that input straight from the veterans across her desk. She talks glowingly about Sampson’s strides in helping the veterans, which may require larger steps in the future.
“I never fail to talk about Sampson County and about how the commissioners of my county support the veterans,” she stated. “That’s why I speak out, because I know you are supporting the veterans and you know that I will not misrepresent the veterans.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.