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Veterans can get help with benefits

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on April 24, 2012 1:46 PM

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Greg Keesee, left, commander of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 45, and Donald Wooten, the unit's senior services officer and executive committee chairman, are seen outside the chapter building on Patrick Street.

For some veterans, the hardest fight they ever face is against their own government, those who work on their behalf say.

The labyrinth of red tape that comes with filing a disability claim can become a minefield of its own. Unless you know the terrain, benefits that have been earned can be elusive.

So for more than half a century, the small group of men and women of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 45, all volunteers, have learned to negotiate the sometimes protracted process of filing a claim on behalf of those who must enter the bureaucratic battlefield.

The Goldsboro chapter is renowned for its expertise in its work. Veterans with complicated needs are often referred to Goldsboro from other DAV chapters, even from out of state.

"We are good at what we do," said Tom Callan, the chapter's executive officer.

The chapter even gets referrals from the national office.

"We've had people at the VA hospital tell folks 'If you want it done right, go to Goldsboro," Callan said.

"I found out the hard way. You get more help with advice," said Donald Wooten, the unit's senior services officer and executive committee chairman. Wooten, who was named the Senior Services Officer of the Year by the North Carolina DAV, said he got help from older veterans when and he wanted to pay it forward.

The Veterans Administration does not try to cheat veterans, chapter members said. But unless you know what questions to ask, you might not learn of benefits that are available. Wooten said that when he retired from the military, he received no official guidance on how the VA works. But an older veteran stepped in to give advice. That is why he donates his time, he said. Because he feels he owes it.

"I became part of the chapter because I wanted to give back what was given to me," he said. "If a veterans goes through the claims process without some representation, they're fighting an uphill battle.

Greg Keesee serves as the commander of the chapter. Keesee said all of the volunteers are driven by a desire to help other veterans. Each year, they donate thousands of hours of their time for nothing more than a handshake and the knowledge that a fellow veteran has gotten the help he or she deserves.

"We're not here for accolades," he said. If you can help a veteran build a better life for himself and his family, that's our reward."

All of the chapter's advisers are required to go through training each year in order to keep up with changes in federal law.

And they stick with a veteran until his or her case is resolved.

"We don't only do your claim, we tell you how to approach your claim and follow it until its process is ended," Wooten said.

The chapter is open for business three days a week -- Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday -- from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. No appointments are accepted. It's strictly first-come, first-served.

All of the chapter's services are free.

And the chapter, which provides transportation to and from the VA hospitals in Fayetteville and Durham, gets no government funding. It relies on donations and fundraisers for its operating expenses. Its main fundraisers are its "Forget Me Not" drive in August, its peanut booth at the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair and an annual fundraiser held at the Golden Corral restaurant in Kinston. Since the Lenoir County chapter disbanded, Chapter 45 has helped veterans from that county as well. Volunteer Cornelius Tindal travels to Kinston to meet with veterans twice a week.

The chapter was formed in 1956 and still occupies a small frame house on Patrick Street, a block from the county museum. It offers its services to veterans who have served in all branches of the military. Men and women still in military but about to be discharged also are welcome. Female veterans often are assigned to female advisors. The chapter has two of them.

"A lot of times a woman feels more comfortable talking to another woman," Callan said.

Keesee noted that the chapter needs a larger building.

"We want to be able to give people more privacy," he said, noting that the DAV is bound by federal privacy laws.

"What's said here stays here," Keesee said.

Chapter 45 handles about 230 cases a month. It holds a breakfast every Wednesday from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. All veterans are invited to attend. The first meal is on the house. After that, a donation is asked.

The DAV isn't a veteran's only recourse. The county Veterans Affairs Office and American Legion Post 215 are available. But the DAV concentrates on disability claims and it has earned a reputation for its effectiveness.

Veterans from Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Iraq, even Korea and World War II and now Afghanistan turn to it for help. Keesee said he expects the number of veterans needing assistance to increase as the wars in the Mideast wind down.

Keesee said the chapter encourages veterans to join. And it is always looking for volunteers and donations. The feeling it gives is worth it, he assured.

"What I do I do from the heart," Wooten said.