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County ensures veterans receive benefits

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A few weeks ago, a Duluth veteran who'd served for six years in the Air Force received a large and long-overdue check from Veterans Affairs. This veteran has permanent mobility issues caused by a back injury sustained a little over 10 years ago while serving our country. But because of some missing paperwork, his disability claims had been denied.

One of my colleagues in the St. Louis County Veterans Service Office worked with this man to gather the necessary documentation and refile the disability claim. I'm proud to share that this veteran just received a check from the VA for $102,806.

This is the kind of work we do in the Veterans Service Office. Our job is to make sure veterans and their families receive the benefits they earned through their service. 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.

The advice I give 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.

Veterans are such a great group. Their military service trained them to be tough and work through miserable conditions. But that means they sometimes forget they don't always have to be that tough. It's okay to ask for help and get compensation for disabilities. We've had veterans with hearing loss come in seeking help in paying for a hearing aid, and end up receiving not only free hearing aids, but also disability back pay. They didn't realize they deserved compensation for their hearing loss; they just tried to work through the disability.

St. Louis County is home to 18,650 veterans, based on 2015 records, the most recent year available. That's more than nine 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.

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 (PTSD). 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 disease, 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 ten 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 last year. Combine that with other VA expenditures in the county and the total tops $93 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.

I encourage any veteran or family member to get in touch with my office to learn about what you've 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 includes descriptions of many of these benefits as well as help links. You may 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.