Veterans organizations discuss hardships, resources amid COVID-19 | Local News

Autumn Owens news1@weatherforddemocrat.com

Organizations dedicated to helping veterans recently discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their services as well as what resources are still available and how they’re adapting to the hardships.

Like other veteran organizations, most of the American Legion Post 163 members are at high-risk and as a result the organization has had to put a halt on some of its services.

“Like most organizations we are staying safe and our doors are not open to the public, but we are doing a few things to the fullest extent possible,” American Legion Post 163 Commander Dan Robertson said. “Once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and we start to get back to normal, we will probably experience a slow start up. This is primarily due to the average age of our membership. However, our volunteers are passionate about supporting our veterans and community, and are dedicated to our mission, goals and objectives. At Parker County American Legion Post 163, we are truly a family, consisting of the American Legion Legionnaires, the American Legion Auxiliary, the Sons of the American Legion and the American Legion Riders. You have heard this phrase many times recently, but ‘we are all in it together.’”

Local veterans organizations like the American Legion Post 163 are doing their best to get through the COVID-19 pandemic, including doing buddy checks on several of their older members.

WD FILE PHOTO

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4746 Commander Patrick Clark said although they’ve had to shut down the post, they’ve still been able to pay employees.

“We’ve had to shut down the post when the governor’s orders came out because we’re not considered an essential business. We have managed so far to keep all of our employees on our payroll,” Clark said. “We’ve had to apply for the [Small Business Association] loan to try to get the payroll protection loan. We haven’t received it but have been told when this next pot of money gets approved, we’re at the top of the list. So we’re paying our employees out of our own funds basically so they can survive.”

Though the VFW R.D. Nelson Memorial Post 4746 has been closed to its members and the public for the last several weeks, but has still managed to be able to pay its employees. The membership has also applied for a Small Business Association Loan for payroll protection.

COURTESY

The Fort Worth organization 22KILL, which is dedicated to raising awareness and combating suicide by empowering veterans, first responders and their families, has also experienced a hardship because of restrictions due to the pandemic.

“We cannot do any outdoor events and outdoor events are pretty much 50-60% of our income that we get outside of grants. It’s a great deal of our donations that help us pay for the counseling and services we offer,” 22KILL Chairman Dan Lombardo said. “But we have not laid off one person. Everyone is still employed, so I’m glad we’re going to make this thing and we’re pushing forward — we’re going to get through this.”

Texas Veterans Leadership Program Veterans Resources Coordinator Clay Dyess, who is over the Parker County area, said as a veteran himself, he has experienced similar hardships and needs with financial instability, employment and resources.

“I am listening to fellow veteran needs and ensuring that they understand that they are not alone in this time of hardship and referring them to the resources reflective of the needs that they have, whether that be the search for employment, financial assistance, counseling and any other number of specific needs as they arise while also making sure that they are continuously updated with new information and asked to continue correspondence for new updates or needs,” Dyess said. “I returned from a deployment in Afghanistan to find myself unable to find work and with a family and mounting bills to take care of, and I want to ensure that I do everything in my power to prevent that from happening to another veteran.”

But the organizations are adapting and still providing services as they can through the pandemic.

“We are doing Buddy Checks with our members by sending out emails and making personal phone calls. We have had a great deal of success in reaching out to our members via social media. We have a veterans administration individual that provides one-on-one counseling to veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” Robertson said. “We have a veterans transportation service we provide to veterans needing rides to go to doctor’s appointments, however, we have suspended this service due to the restriction levied by the VA and doctors, and due to the fact that most of our volunteers are of the age at the greatest risk. However, we have been providing transportation to one veteran who suffered a stroke and needs physical therapy. Although our support to the veterans in our community is limited at this time, rest assured, we are always stepping forward to help where we can.”

Robertson said American Legion has also been doing its part in helping others in the community by donating food to Freedom House and Parker County Center of Hope.

Clark said they’ve had some members making and handing out masks, and they’ve been reaching out to their members.

“We’ve had several members that have put together masks and are handing them out to our members or the public if they need them. We’ve been in contact with the majority of our members to find out their status and offer any assistance if we can,” Clark said. “We’ve had one member that was affected that I know of so far, both him and his wife tested positive and they’re on the road to recovery right now.”

Lombardo said 22KILL still offers many services, including telehealth and counseling.

“We are a registered counseling organization — every counselor at 22KILL has a masters level or higher — and so we were considered an essential service and we do that for the veterans and first responders, but the largest thing we do is telehealth. Our telehealth interaction has gone up greatly — there’s a certain number of veterans and first responders where the stress of being in that environment dealing with so many cases of COVID-19, having to wear masks and then a lot of them having to be away from their family, has created a large increase in that service,” Lombardo said. “We have not seen this many people that are trying to get on telehealth from that group. 22KILL also takes insurance, so through the telehealth program they can use their insurance. We pretty much do six visits for free and then on a basis of whatever you can afford, we work with their income.”

As for resources, Robertson said they’ve shared information from a webinar this month with all the American Legion members on accessing VA telehealth services and educating members on the CARES Act.

“The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, U.S. Department of the Veterans Administration and Phillips joined forces to provide information to veterans and caregivers about accessing telehealth. This was some very good information on VA access to doctors, tests, online appointments and other good health benefits,” Robertson said. “It is important that our veterans in our community are aware of the CARES Act to enable them to be supported during this difficult time.”

The CARES Act, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, was signed into law on March 27 by President Donald Trump and provides more than $2 trillion in economic relief to Americans from the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Clark said the VFW of Texas has put out a lot of information on their website for veterans.

“They also need to utilize the VA website, which has a lot of resources for veterans if they need it,” Clark said. 

As of March, the unemployment rate in Texas was 4.7 percent — the lowest state was North Dakota with 2.2 percent and the highest was Louisiana with 6.7 percent — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In February, Texas had an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent.

At the state level, there are two entities that serve directly to assist veterans in need — the Texas Veterans Leadership Program and the Texas Veterans Commission, according to Dyess.

“The Texas Veterans Leadership Program is part of the Texas Workforce Commission and serves regionally as resource coordinators for whatever needs that a veteran may have, whether employment, VA disability, enrollment in college, etc. We, in other words, serve as facilitators and partners with resources in our local areas to ensure that whatever needs the veteran may have that they are directed to the appropriate entity. Of the 18 to 20 resource coordinators across the state, we are all veterans of the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, though we serve the needs of veterans of any age or demographic,” Dyess said. “The Texas Veterans Commission serves at the local level on most often two fronts, either that of a veteran career advisor that assists veterans needing employment or as employer liaisons that work closely and directly with employers to find and assist them in their staffing needs.”

As for what is needed during these uncertain times, Robertson said although he really admires the Weatherford community, they don’t need anything from the public at this time.

“We should be engaging with the mayor to see if we can assist with anything,” Robertson said.

Lombardo said any amount of donation always helps 22KILL provide for veterans.

“Donate $5, $10, $20, it all goes to a great organization and 85 percent goes to programs. That’s unheard of — most charities are lower than that,” Lombardo said. “But we’re doing some great things and this is a very stressful time for someone who might have PTS or PPI because the phone sometimes is not enough and the Telehealth sometimes is not enough, so this is very challenging.”

Dyess said the pandemic is a struggle that everyone will endure and get through.

“At one time or another, whether in the services or as civilians, we have had struggles to overcome and hills to climb and we — everyone, veteran or not — will overcome. There are many people and organizations locally and statewide that thrive on the opportunity to assist in times of crisis and are standing by to offer any help possible,” Dyess said. “Things will get better and there will always be people standing by to do whatever is necessary to ensure your needs are taken care of. You are not alone in this fight, nor shall you ever be.”

Clark said he’s looking forward to everything going back to normal.

“I’m hoping that all the public stays safe and I look forward to when we have a chance as an organization to be back out and involved in the community,” Clark said. 

Lombardo’s word of advice is that it’s OK to not be OK during this time, but that those that are struggling must reach out.

“Always reach out. If you’re struggling reach out to someone that you can trust and that you love because support is where it’s at. The thing that I always say and our organization says is, the first lesson everyone has to learn is it’s OK not to be OK,” Lombardo said “It’s normal to be depressed, it’s normal to go through these things, but you have to reach out and ask for help. That’s what I would tell any veteran or first responder, or anyone that’s an American, a human being — reach out.”


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