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Are veterans receiving all the benefits they earned?

St. Louis County is home to 18,340 veterans, based on 2013 records, the most recent year available. That's more than 9 percent of the population. St. Louis County's Veterans Service Office works with hundreds of these veterans every year and we'd like to work with even more.

Our job is to make sure veterans and their families receive the benefits they earned through their service. The advice I give to all veterans is to give us a call. You may not realize you're eligible for certain benefits. You may have even been denied in the past, but laws and benefits change, so you may be eligible now.

Two years ago, we worked with a Vietnam veteran who has a presumptive cancer, meaning it is a presumed link to Agent Orange exposure. He'd previously been denied benefits, but due to our efforts, the Veterans Administration ruled a "clear and unmistakable error" had occurred and awarded the man more than $300,000 in back pay.

More recently, we worked with a veteran who has Parkinson's disease and got him service connected, which means his disease or disability is recognized as being connected to his military service. As a result, this veteran received a retroactive check for $42,000.

A disability linked to military service can come in a variety of forms ranging from chronic knee pain to mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Hearing loss and tinnitus, a noise or ringing in the ears, are by far the most common disabilities we see. In Vietnam vets, we often see Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's, prostate cancer and coronary artery disease, all of which are considered service connected.

Veterans are eligible to receive disability compensation if they are determined to be at least 10 percent disabled because of injuries or diseases that incurred in or were aggravated during active duty, active duty for training or inactive-duty training.

Records from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs show that St. Louis County veterans received more than $50 million in compensation and pension in 2013. Combine that with other VA expenditures in the county and the total tops $94 million. Veterans make a huge economic impact in our county.

And they've earned it. These are not entitlements or handouts. These are benefits promised to protect veterans and their families. The benefit amount will vary depending on the degree of the veteran's disability. For veterans with dependents, the compensation may be higher. Other factors may also be considered.

The formulas and process for determining benefits can be confusing and even overwhelming. Anyone who's been involved in the military knows how much paperwork is involved. That's where we can help. We know what federal and state benefits are available and what the eligibility requirements are. Our Veteran Service Officers act as liaisons and advocates for the veterans in our county. We identify eligibility and also refer veterans to various service organizations and agencies that can help them.

I encourage veterans or family members to get in touch with my office to learn about what they have earned. Beyond disability benefits, we can be a resource for education benefits, home loan guarantees, transportation to VA appointments, burial costs and more. Our website, stlouiscountymn.gov/veterans, includes descriptions of many of these benefits as well as help links. You can also call us with questions or to set up an appointment at (218) 725-5285.

Sherry Rodriguez is the director of the St. Louis County Veterans Service Office.

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