KILLEEN — Veterans, service members and their families were able to get up-to-date information on the benefits and resources available to them during a veteran’s benefits fair at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center in Killeen on Saturday.
The Veterans Land Board, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Texas Veterans Commission, held the event to provide easy access to representatives who can assist those with pending disability compensation claims, healthcare, education and employment needs.
“The Veterans Land Board in Texas helps veterans find out what benefits they qualify for, how to apply for those benefits and how to meet the local people that will help with that process,” said Jim Bob Mickler, the marketing director for VLB. “The VLB does the best job it can of matching the veterans with the benefits, especially when it comes to buying a house, buying land or home improvements on a house you already have.”
The VLB also builds cemeteries like the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen and nursing homes. Texas State Veterans Cemeteries are for veterans, their spouse and dependent children only.
“The interest that we make off those programs we build cemeteries; we’ve built four cemeteries and we’re building our ninth nursing home,” Mickler said. “Since 1946 its been veterans helping veterans, Texans helping Texans, one at a time.”
Representatives were on hand from the Texas Veterans Commission to help veterans access all the benefits and services they have earned.
“We help with (VA) claims, we have healthcare advocacy,” said Julia Conner, a communications and outreach representative from the TVC. “If veterans are having problems accessing medical treatment, we side with the veteran and help them resolve those issues.”
Conner said the commission also assists veterans to access their educational and employment benefits, helps veterans start their own businesses and runs a women’s veteran program.
“Women sometimes like to talk to women; of course they get all of the same benefits the men do, but sometimes it’s better for them if they talk to a woman about their benefits,” Conner said.
Conner said the TVC also has a fund to help veterans in times of financial difficulties.
“We have the Funds for Veterans Assistance where we give money to non-profit organizations that directly assist veterans with utilities, housing, transportation, whatever they need,” Conner said.
Conner said the TVC also helps veterans understand their educational benefits.
“We can help veterans understand the G.I. Bill and the Hazlewood Act which Texas administers, and we make sure that the schools the veterans wish to attend are certified to accept the educational benefits,” Conner said. “We also help veterans start new careers and translate their military skills into civilian terminology, we help with resumes, job interview skills and help in finding jobs in the civilian sector.”
Officials from the Central Texas Veterans Affairs were offering information on health promotion and disease prevention.
“I’m promoting all the health education programs that the VA has to offer like tobacco cessation, weight loss, diabetes control, blood pressure control and getting immunizations and cancer screenings,” said Joan Vanicek, the health promotion and disease prevention program manager at the Central Texas VA.
Jeremy Smith, a dietician and diabetes educator for the Central Texas VA, said that Central Texas has the highest rate of diabetes among veterans.
“When we look at the risk factors associated with diabetes, certain ethnic groups have much higher rates of diabetes,” Smith said. “So, when we look at our area we have a large Hispanic veteran population who are getting older, and when you pair those two together you can see why the percentages are higher.”
Smith said the Central Texas VA looks at several chronic diseases like diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure.
“The thing that’s crazy about this stuff is it’s preventable,” Smith said. “We can’t prevent everything, but we can control where you live a long and productive life. But we have to catch it earlier, and that’s our challenge.”
Smith said healthcare usually is about waiting for something to break and then try and fix it.
“You wouldn’t do that with your lawnmower or your car. We get oil changes, rotate tires etc., but are we doing that for our health?” Smith explained.
Present at the fair were lenders from different financial institutions like PrimeLending, a PlainsCapital Company, to assist borrowers fulfill their homeownership dreams.
“We have no VA lender fees, that’s unique to PrimeLending, and we also do VA renovation and we participate with the Texas Veterans Land Board home loan program,” said Deborah Huddleston, branch manager of the Killeen office.
The fair even hosted several law firms available to assist veterans with legal matters and institutions of higher learning to train veterans in technical fields like Heating and Air Conditioning repair.
Amanda Pincock, the director of student services at the Austin Career Institute, was available for veterans looking at starting a new career.
“We wanted to let veterans, their dependents and spouses know that we’ve got this program that accepts the G.I. Bill and are a technical training school that offers residential and commercial HVAC training,” Pincock said. “We are also going to be offering an electrician program and a medical assistant program this year.”
Pincock said the great part about the program they offer is it is almost completely hands-on and the institution’s mission statement is about serving those who have served their country.
Kenneth Schoen, an Army retiree who served 20 years and did a combat tour in Vietnam, was at the fair not only as a veteran but to represent the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.
“This fair is the greatest thing in the world, you always hear about resources in Waco or other places and don’t often hear of things in the Killeen area,” Schoen said. “But, the month of March has been a godsend. We got the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall out at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery and now this benefits fair.”
Schoen said the benefits fair had more booths set up than he’s ever seen at any other similar venue he’s attended.
Earlier in the week, Central Texas College also partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Texas Veterans Commission and approximately 30 other organizations March 6 to bring current benefits information to veterans during a Veterans Benefits Expo at the Anderson Campus Center.
Several departments from CTC were available to guide veterans — and service members preparing to move into a veteran status — through the various programs provided by the college and how to access them. Booths ranged from admissions to disability support services and how to utilize the Hazelwood Exemption Act — a benefit for Texas veterans where the state will pay for up to eight semesters of college tuition.
“We just try to put all the information that’s out there to the veterans,” said Daniel Reyes, CTC veterans advocate. “There are benefits out there they may not be aware of. So we try to touch bases with them and with the other entities out there. One of my main concerns here as an advocate is to give the benefits out there to all the students. About 50 percent of the students here are veterans using their benefits.”
An expo helps get the word out to veterans on what benefits are available because they earned them, Reyes said. Since benefits tend to change often, giving them the opportunity to learn what they may now be eligible for is important.
Veterans benefit fairs are held every March. For more information about the Texas Veterans Land Board, call 800-252-8387 or go to TexasVeterans.com.
David A. Bryant contributed to this report.