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Veterans earn a wide variety of services

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | November 9, 2023 1:00 AM

They are there to help.

Bottom line, that's what Veterans Services officers — and others like him in Idaho — are tasked with doing each day, said Thomas Lindley, who took over the job when Bryan Hult retired this summer.

"Basically, I'm here to help you," Lindley said of what he wants the region's veterans to know. "If you have questions about the benefits, I'm here. If you need help filing for your benefits, I am here. If you need me to be your advocate with the VA, I'm here to help you with that."

His counterparts throughout the state are there to do the same.

Lindley said the Veterans Services officers work as a team, providing advice and assistance regardless of where the veteran lives or which office they visit.

"At the end of the day, it's about creating a net that no one falls through," Lindley said. "Because it feels like there's a lot of veterans that walk into the woods, either literally or philosophically, and never come back out."

His priority is to listen, to find out if the veteran is OK, if they need mental or medical help, and to serve as a conduit to accessing that assistance if they need it. Then the conversation turns to compensation and benefits.

It's looking at veterans and what they need holistically, Lindley said.

Sometimes, they just need someone to talk to; others, they need help making sense of a form.

He's there to help with all of it — and more, Lindley said.

"Your fellow citizens and your elected leadership of Bonner County have seen fit to provide a veteran's service office for you, so that you don't have to be alone and frustrated and without an advocate to apply for the benefits that you earned with your service to your fellow citizens," Lindley said.

From medical and dental care to home loans, from debt assistance to pensions to burial benefits, there is a wide variety of benefits offered to veterans. 

Benefits offered through the Veterans Administration, broken down by the different areas of the agency, include:

  • Veteran Health Administration, which deals with medical, in-home care, prosthetics, and prescriptions. 
  • Veteran Benefits Administration, which deals with disability compensation, pensions, education, insurance, and vocational rehabilitation.
  • Veteran Cemetery Administration, which deals with death and burial honors.

Under each of those entities are a host of other services, records, and benefits. Conversations with veterans — or their spouses and dependents — help VS officers determine what the needs are and guide them on what evidence they will need for each claim or benefit — or an appeal if the initial claim is denied. The role of the Bonner County Veterans Services office is to support and guide veterans. 

All veterans, surviving spouses, and dependents are invited to stop by or to call for an appointment. While many of the services are available online, Lindley said that by stopping by in person, he can talk to veterans, determine their needs, and map out a customized assistance program. Because the county offices work with each other, VS officers can help veterans fill out forms and direct them to the office where they need to go — such as the Assessor’s Office for a veterans tax abatement benefit. Benefits earned by veterans range from medical coverage to educational benefits, from home loans to disability and pensions. Some benefits extend to a surviving spouse.

"Basically, we exist so that you don't have to do it yourself," Lindley said. "Can you imagine if you had to file your taxes by yourself?"

Imagine an injury suffered long ago as a veteran, Lindley said. Many, especially those in older generations, just got on with life and never reported it, or documented how it was connected to their service. His job, and that of the state's other Veterans Services officers, is to help veterans connect the dots and ensure they receive all of the benefits they have earned.

Depending on when they served and where, Lindley said that can vary widely. Many are unaware of the full range of benefits they have earned because of those differences.

"Your veterans benefits are almost like ordering a la carte, because it depends on what years you served, it depends on where you served, and it depends on a variety of things," Lindley said. "There are so many variables."

His job is to help the veterans make sense of those variables so they receive all of the benefits they have earned. He is appreciative of veterans like those who fought in Vietnam and Korea and who fought to ensure easier access to benefits for future veterans.

"It's going back and framing it [to your service]," Lindley said. "Not just thinking about it literally. Say you broke your pinky, and you need to be compensated for your broken pinky. OK, how do we prove that you broke your pinky while in the service?"

His job is to help the veterans make those connections between their service and the benefits, to help them navigate the bureaucracy and forms so that they receive what they have earned.

"My best analogy is that if you had a next-door neighbor, and you loaned him your shovel and he broke your shovel, you would expect him to return your broken shovel with some money to compensate you for breaking something that was yours," Lindley said. "That's the VA. They want to say yes to disabled veterans; they want to compensate veterans for the disabilities they have that the Department of Defense caused."

But the injury has to be linked to service, and that's where he comes in — to help veterans prove that connection, Lindley said. 

Contrary to what some think, Veterans Services is a county office, part of a statewide program, and has no federal funding from the Veterans Administration. VS officers are advocates for veterans, taking the bureaucracy out of wading through available benefits and helping veterans so they know — and can take advantage of all the services that are offered. To assist veterans, Bonner County’s Veterans Services website offers a host of information available to those who have served, their spouses, and their dependents. It offers information on everything from who qualifies as a veteran to how they can determine if they have benefits and, if so, what they are. It even lists definitions of applicable terms. A list of links can be found on the website — from local to state to federal. Sites include everything from ministry programs to available resources to tips on getting hired and everything in between. The office is part of a statewide program dedicated to serving Idaho’s veterans and their families. The office assists veterans in their homes as well as outreach programs to ensure veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

Like most of North Idaho, Bonner and Boundary counties have a high percentage of veterans, roughly 10% of the population. In comparison, roughly 5% of the population in the United States has served.

The country's servicemen and women give of themselves — as do their families — to ensure their neighbors, their families, and their communities have access to all of the freedoms that are the foundation of the United States.

"The cost of freedom is not free; freedom is not free," Lindley said. "We are always one generation away from losing the freedoms that were ensured, but the Founding Fathers and the people that choose to serve protect those freedoms for the rest of America."

Lindley, who served in the Air Force for just over 29 years as an airborne computer technician and as a sensor array operator, was looking for a new career after retiring from the military.

It just so happened that at a meeting with Veterans Administration officials and area residents, former Veterans Services officer Bryan Hult stood up, introduced himself, and noted he was retiring soon.

Ken Hunt, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, elbowed Lindley in the ribs. "That's the job for you, buddy," the new Veterans Services officer said with a chuckle.

Lindley said he explored what the job entailed and realized Hunt was right — the job was a perfect fit, blending what he loved the most about his last decade of service — helping people.

"I was paid money to sit behind a desk most of the time and help young Americans 'adult' better, help them what I called 'Air Force' better," Lindley said. "And I was helping people and just providing guidance, being able to help mentor and coach people through both their darkest times and their highest times."

Being able to build teams within teams and help them excel was a highlight of that period of his career, he said. That same ability to help forms the basis of what he does now.

"The best part of my week is I get paid to sit here and talk to veterans," Lindley added. "I get to listen to their stories, and I get to share my own stories, and I get to help them."

Office of Veterans Advocacy

The Office of Veterans Advocacy headquarters is located at 444 Fort St., Boise. Five service officers are based in Idaho’s three veterans homes, as well as a service officer based in Posts Falls and a county Veterans Services officer in each county, including Bonner and Boundary counties.

Veterans Education

The education coordinator’s office is located at 351 Collins Road in Boise. The main purpose of this office is to approve educational (including information on the GI Bill), vocational, apprenticeships, certificates, licensing, and on-the-job training programs for funding by the VA.

References for approved programs and facilities using the GI Bill can be found at benefits.va.gov/gibill/education_programs.asp. Additional state scholarship information can be found at veterans.idaho.gov/benefits-aservices/education.

Veterans Homes

There are three Medicare and Medicaid-certified Idaho State Veterans Homes in Idaho and multiple in Washington as well. Honorably discharged veterans and their spouses who require skilled nursing care are eligible for admission to nursing homes.

Nearby facilities include Lewiston and Spokane. The Lewiston home is located at 821 21st Ave., Lewiston. It can be reached at 208-750-3600 or via email at lewiston@veterans.idaho.gov. The Spokane facility is located at 225 E. Fifth Ave. and can be reached via phone at 509-344-5770.

Veterans Cemetery

The VA operates a cemetery in each state. The Idaho Veterans Cemetery is located in Boise, and the Washington Veterans Cemetery is located in Medical Lake. Military funeral honors are coordinated by the cemetery. Options include everything from a full casket, in-ground interment to a columbarium niche, cremation interment to an in-ground cremation interment.

Military funeral honors are coordinated by the cemetery and include an honor guard, the playing of “Taps,” a flag folding, and presentation.

The Boise Cemetery is located at 10100 Horseshoe Bend Road in Boise; the number is 208-780-1340. The Medical Lake Cemetery is located at 21702 W. Espanola Road; the number is 509-299-6280.

Federal VA Benefits

Medical

To the extent resources and facilities are available, the VA provides hospital care covering the full range of medical services to veterans, including military sexual trauma assistance and post-traumatic stress disorder. Eligible veterans may receive medical treatment at any VA Medical Center or VA-contracted community-based outpatient clinic. 

You can find a list of VA regional offices by calling 1-800-827-1000 or visiting www.va.gov. For more information about MST-related treatment, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov/msthome.asp

Disability and pensions

The VA can pay compensation if veterans are at least 10% disabled as a result of their military service. The VA can pay a pension if an individual is a wartime veteran with limited income and you are no longer able to work. In addition, the VA offers dependency and indemnity compensation paid to eligible survivors of military service members who died in the line of duty or eligible survivors of veterans whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease.

To file a claim for a pension, a veteran must have 90 days of active duty and at least one day during a wartime era. The veteran must be over 65 and be 100% disabled related to Social Security.

The veteran must meet the income and asset limitations. Income may include wages, disability and retirement payments, interest and dividend payments from annuities, and net income from farming or a business. Unreimbursed medical expenses (out-of-pocket medical expenses) will reduce income. Net worth is the sum of the claimant’s assets. Net worth does not include the claimant’s home, personal car, furniture, or clothes.

Education

There are many education services offered to veterans. They include the Montgomery G.I. Bill, the Veterans Education Assistance Program, vocational rehabilitation, the Post 9/11 GI Bill, and Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance.

The Montgomery G.I. Bill provides financial assistance to honorably discharged veterans who first entered active duty after June 30, 1985, and elected to participate within the first 12 months of service. Call toll-free, 1-888-442-4551.

The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program is available to assist veterans with service-connected disabilities to prepare for, find, and keep suitable jobs. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-827-1000.

The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program is available to assist veterans with service-connected disabilities to prepare for, find, and keep suitable jobs. For information, call 1-800-827-1000.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill is a federal education benefit program for individuals who served on active duty a minimum of 90 aggregate days after Sept. 10, 2001. For information, call 1-888-442-4551 or go online to gibill.va.gov.

• Through the Survivors and Dependents Educational Assistance, some family members of disabled or deceased veterans are eligible for education benefits. Spouses generally have 10 years from either the date they become eligible or the date of the veteran’s death. Children generally must be between the ages of 18 and age 26 to receive benefits, though extensions may be granted.

Home loans

The VA may guarantee part of a veteran’s loan for the purchase of a home, manufactured home, or condominium. In addition, veterans with conventional home loans now have options for refinancing to a VA-guaranteed home loan as a result of the Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2008. For information, call 1-877-827-3702 or visit http://www.homeloans.va.gov/

Home improvement grants

Veterans may qualify for a Specially Adapted Housing grant if a disabling qualifying condition was incurred through service. The veteran must own the home and the maximum benefit is $100,000 but no more than 50% of the cost to remodel or purchase.

A veteran may qualify for a Special Housing Adaptation grant for a qualifying condition. The grant allows veterans to buy, build, or change their permanent home to adapt it to meet the needs posed by the condition, such as blindness, loss or loss of use of both hands, severe burns, and respiratory injuries.

A Temporary Residence Adaptation grant allows a veteran temporarily living in a family member’s home to make necessary changes without the need for home ownership.

Life insurance

A veteran with a new service-connected disability, but otherwise in good health, may apply to the VA for up to $10,000 in life insurance coverage at standard rates. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-669-8477 or visit www.insurance.va.gov

Veterans small business ownership

The U.S. Small Business Administration offers programs and services for veterans seeking to establish or expand small businesses. SBA’s express and pilot programs offer streamlined and expedited loan procedures for active duty military members and veterans. For information, call toll-free 1-800-827-5722, or go online to sba.gov/content/express-programs. 

Homeless veterans services

VA tries to partner with many different organizations to provide specialized homeless services. The number for the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans is 1-877-424-3838, this number will route veterans to the closest VA medical center to address their needs.

Automobile allowance

Qualifying veterans are eligible to receive a one-time payment toward the purchase of a vehicle. Evidence must meet the guidance and conditions outlined.

Dependency (parent)

Benefit provides for assistance when a parent has been dependent on a veteran. Proper forms and evidence must be submitted.

Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay

When a retired military veteran is rated at 50% or greater, the VA awards the SC disability in addition to the military retirement. This was prohibited until Jan. 1, 2004. The veteran does not need to apply for this. If veterans were placed on a disability retirement but would be eligible for military retired pay in the absence of the disability, they may be entitled to receive CRDP.

VA will work direction with DFAS to coordinate payments and offsets.

Claims

Each claim has three parts — a current chronic physical or mental condition, something that began in the military and that initiated the chronic condition, and a connection from the current condition to military service. Claims can be established by direct connection, a presumptive connection, secondary, or aggravation of a condition or injury as a result of VA medical treatment.

Evidence must show support for a veteran's claim. Lindley said Veterans Services officers are there to assist veterans in the process of filing claims and forms as well as determining what is needed in each instance.

Appeals

The Appeals Modernization Act was signed into law in August 2018 and put into effect on Feb. 19, 2019. Veterans have several options for appeals, including filing an appeal with supplemental evidence, appealing to a higher level of authority, or filing an appeal to the Board of Veteran Appeals. Appeals of an appeal decision also may be made according to VA guidelines and policy.

National Personnel Resource Center

The center assists with requests for discharge paperwork, military medical records, copies of an official personnel file, or even a one-time set of the veteran’s medals.

The request must be signed by the veteran, surviving spouse, or if no surviving spouse, then the next of kin. 

Agent Orange exam

The registry health exam alerts veterans to possible long-term health problems that may be related to Agent Orange exposure. Registry data helps the VA understand and respond to these health problems more effectively.

The exam includes exposure history, medical history, physical exam, and any tests if needed. It is free to eligible veterans.

Information: bit.ly/3BUSD2W

Environmental Hazard Exposure

The VA is establishing a database regarding veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater. This includes Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas, where veterans were exposed to toxic chemicals in the air, water, or soil. The database will be used to track veterans and conditions, which potentially could have originated in the Southwest Asia theater.

Information: Stacie Woodie, 509-434-7544

Home health care

Veterans may be eligible for home health care if they are signed up for VA health care and the VA concludes a specific service is needed to help with ongoing treatment. Some services may be covered by the VA, but they require co-pays. Some services won’t be covered under VA health care benefits, but they may be covered by Medicaid, Medicare, or own private insurance

Veterans Crisis Line

The crisis line connects veterans to caring, qualified responders who answer calls, texts, or chats and ask you a few questions. Among the signs of a crisis are feelings of anxiety, loneliness, or thoughts of suicide. For signs of crisis, go online to bit.ly/3bQIB8o.

To reach the crisis line, call 1-800-273-8255.

Idaho Veterans Benefits

• Employment assistance

The Idaho Department of Labor provides several services to Veterans and active duty military members. Veterans receive priority in job search assistance, referrals, and training. Trained and dedicated representatives are available to help veterans solve employment issues.

For information, go online to the Idaho Department of Labor website at labor.idaho.gov.

• Financial assistance

In cases of extreme emergency, wartime veterans in need of assistance can receive grants of up to $1,000. Veterans must have entered the military from Idaho or lived within the state for at least five years. The event or emergency must have occurred within 90 days of the request. For assistance with emergency grants contact the Office of Veterans Advocacy at 208-780-1380.

• Tax benefits

The state has rules allowing low-income individuals to reduce their property taxes. These rules are based on the income earned by the individual in a given year. All military retirement income is subject to state income tax before age 65. Retirement benefits paid by the United States to a retired member of the U.S. military or an un-remarried widow if the recipient is age 65 or older, or disabled and age 62 or older are deductible. The amount of deduction varies from year to year. Disability income is not taxed by Idaho.

• Hiring preference for veterans

Idaho provides U.S. military veterans who have been on active service, other than active duty for training and have been discharged honorably, with hiring preference when they apply for public-sector jobs. 

For those classified positions that require an examination under the state’s merit system, preference points are added to the final passing score of qualifying veterans and their qualifying spouses or widows/widowers, which may improve their position on a list of qualified candidates.

Veteran’s preference requires public employers to provide additional consideration for eligible veterans, but it does not guarantee the veteran a job. A DD214 may be requested to verify veteran status.

• Recreation

Admission to parks:

Free camping and day use access within Idaho’s State Parks for an Idaho service-connected disabled veteran rated at 100%, permanent and total. Upon proof of eligibility, a lifetime, wallet-sized pass is issued allowing Idaho veterans the opportunity to take advantage of their discount. To apply, go online to parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/activities/camping and click on “Discounts & Fees.”

Resident disabled American veterans may be eligible for reduced fees for hunting and fishing licenses and tags.

• Hunting and fishing licenses: 

Resident disabled American veterans may be eligible for reduced fees for hunting and fishing licenses and tags. The DAV license, $5, allows the disabled veteran to purchase reduced-fee DAV tags for deer, elk, bear, or turkey. A letter must be submitted from the Veterans Affairs office verifying a service-connected disability rating of 40 percent or greater. 

Nonresident disabled American veterans with a disability rating of 40 percent or more by Veterans Affairs are eligible for nonresident DAV reduced fees for licenses and tags. The nonresident DAV hunting with a three-day fishing license allows the nonresident disabled veteran to purchase reduced-fee nonresident Disabled American Veteran tags for deer, elk, bear, or turkey.

• Professional licenses

Veterans who hold a professional license issued in Idaho, that license will be good for six months following discharge. Idaho also has agreements with multiple professional licensing agencies that allow veterans to convert their military service into a civilian professional license. 

For more information please visit the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licenses website at http://ibol.idaho.gov/IBOL/.

• Veterans specialty license plates

A variety of veterans specialty plates are available through the Idaho Transportation Department, including veterans, Gold Star families, Medal of Honor recipients, Purple Heart recipients, and more. License plates can be obtained at itd.idaho.gov/DMV.

• Veterans designation on driver’s license

As of Nov. 11, 2014, honorably discharged veterans have the option of having “Veteran” printed on their driver’s license. Veterans just need to present their DD214 or other proof of honorable service, when they have their license issued or renewed.

Financial Resources

A variety of sources exist for veterans to learn about financial and legal services, including:

• USAA customer service: 1-800-531-8722

• Navy Federal Credit Union Customer Service: 1-888-842-6328

• militaryonesource.mil/financial-legal/personal-finance/personal-finance-resources

Other services

• Sandpoint Veterans of Foreign Wars post: 1325 Pine St., Sandpoint; or by phone at 208-263-9613

• Sandpoint Community Resource Center: The center brings together volunteers from the community who are available to bring together people in need with people available to help. Call 208-920-1840 or go online to sandpointcommunityresource.com

• Goodwill Supportive Services for Veteran Families: Goodwill is a housing stability program serving veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Call 509-838-2449

• Spokane VA Hospital: address, 4515 N. Assembly St.; phone, 509-434-7000 or 1-800-325-7940; or online, www.spokane.va.gov.

• Helping Hands & Healing Hearts: A joint ministry of churches that helps members of the community in need. Information: 208- 263-6378 or 221 S. Division Ave. (In the back of the Church of God).

Important phone numbers

• Idaho Division of Veterans Services — 208-780-1300

• VA Community Based Outpatient Clinics — 208-263-0450, Sandpoint; or 208-665-1700, Coeur d’Alene

• IDVS Veterans Resource Directory — www.veterans.idaho.gov

Things to know

Because each veteran’s needs are unique to them, Lindley encourages them to call for an appointment so he can go over their options and what services might fit their needs best. It is something he feels honored to do, he said.

To schedule an appointment and talk with Lindley, call 208-255-5291; or stop by the Veterans Services office located in the Bonner County Administration Building, 1500 Highway 2, Suite 122, in Sandpoint. The office is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

To schedule an appointment, and talk with Boundary County Veterans Services officer Brooke Blagrove at 208-255-8882.

Information: Bonner County, bonnercountyid.gov/departments/veterans; Boundary County, tinyurl.com/y3xa5pyf