PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Serving the country comes with benefits, but many veterans, especially those from the Vietnam era, either don’t know about them or do not go after them.
“Vietnam era and before that are very reluctant. They don’t want to ask for anything. They think other veterans are more deserving,” said Michael Brooks, superintendent at Veterans Assistance Commission of Peoria County.
Brooks said only 44% of Vietnam veterans are aware of their benefits.
“Which is a crazy number to believe, but then only 25% of Vietnam veterans receive their VA benefits they’re entitled to,” he said.
The VAC of Peoria County helps veterans file and receive disability claims, financial assistance and death benefits. Brooks said they secured almost $40 million in benefits in 2021.
“We just don’t file the paperwork and say goodbye. We’re with you through the entire process. We help them through the VA red tape process,” said Brooks.
What used to take years, he said, now takes six to eight months.
“We’re not doing anything blindly like the VA process used to be,” he said.
Gary Hall was drafted into the Army in April 1968. He was assigned to the 32nd Medical, the sole medical supply unit in Vietnam.
He said Vietnam veterans don’t file for benefits because of government mistrust.
“They sent us over there telling us one thing, and we found out something different: that is really was not the war that they said [it would be,]” he said.
Hall said survivor’s guilt is another factor.
“They survived Vietnam and their buddies didn’t. And the just fact that they survived, they’re [feeling] guilty about that,” he said.
Hall said the scars of war never really go away and recalled one memory of five prisoners who hung in the town square for days. Anyone who tried to take them down got shot.
“For a long time, I couldn’t wear, [and] I still have a little trouble wearing a tie,” he said. “There’s times that I’ve talked to Veterans, [and] they tell me stuff. I don’t care who you are, you’re gonna be crying,” he said.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul released an updated “Benefits for Illinois Veterans” guide on Dec. 26. It includes information for veterans and their families on new programs and benefits, including veteran homelessness, Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, illnesses linked to service in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more.
“My office is dedicated to ensuring that veterans and active duty service members receive the benefits they have earned,” Raoul said in a statement. “This comprehensive veterans’ benefits guide will ensure Illinois veterans and their families know their eligibility and how to apply for federal, state, and municipal benefits.”
At the federal level, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Rockford) said her office helps out thousands of veterans and their families which whatever they need.
“We have had veterans who don’t know where their own medals are… We have named post offices after veterans who have lost their lives… I mean like literally, the list is so long,” she said.
Bustos said it’s the least they can do to honor those who served and died for the country.
“That’s because of those veterans who have done so much for us. So, we want to make sure that we’re doing right by them,” she said.