Richard Hernandez Sr. began volunteering to help veterans maneuver through bureaucratic paperwork 15 years ago.
Setting up shop for three-hour shifts, three times a week, he said sometimes no veterans show up to receive his help and other times, he’s gotten up to 30.
So when Bell County Judge Jon Burrows announced the county would employ a full-time veterans service officer in October — a state-mandated, county-funded, position that has remained vacant for years — Hernandez said he was glad.
After recent reports highlighted Bell County as the only qualified county in Texas without a veterans service officer, Burrows said officials decided it was time to fill the position.
It was left vacant for years because officials never heard complaints from residents about needing more access to a veterans service officer, he said.
“I talked to Jon personally five to seven years ago, and he said his phone was not ringing and no one was asking (for services),” Hernandez said, recounting past conversations with the judge. “But whenever (residents) have no one on the other side listening, of course no one is going to ask, because no one is listening.”
Hernandez said the need for additional help navigating services in the county is evident. He said the Veterans of Foreign Wars office in Harker Heights consistently has 20 to 30 veterans show up to receive help from volunteers.
While it’s true veterans can go to Fort Hood or Temple to receive help, they aren’t the easiest places to access.
“(Post) is good for a retired or active-duty person, but a lot of the veterans out here don’t have 20 years, so they don’t have immediate access to Fort Hood,” he said.
Many lower-income veterans do not have transportation, so the Temple office, which is about 30 miles away, is out of reach, he said.
“We have always needed a service officer in Bell County, and we have voiced that to the (county) commissioners, especially when they were running for office,” he said.
Veterans who recently lined up in the early morning outside the Vet Center in Harker Heights, agreed with Hernandez, but went a step further. It’s not just more service officers needed; it’s more quality and easily accessible service officers needed.
Of the dozen people lined up July 10, each was there to see Willie Browning, a volunteer known for her knowledge of VA regulation and dedication to filing veterans’ claims.
“It’s not a lack of resources; it’s a lack of people like her,” said Derek Mitchell, of Killeen.
Bill Wright, a longtime volunteer service officer with Killeen’s Disabled American Veterans chapter, said he gives out cards and tries to pass the word that he helps veterans maneuver paperwork.
He said often veterans do not know volunteer services are offered so they go to the long-lined VA-funded facilities because they are more visible.
In county’s best interest
Victor Gates, of Killeen, said he’s tried to visit the service officers in Temple, but didn’t like experience.
“When you go see them at the VA, it’s like they’re trying to catch you in a lie. Whereas here, (Browning) takes you at face value. It’s like somebody tells them, don’t try to help at all,” he said July 10 while waiting at the Vet Center in Harker Heights.
Browning, who spends about 25 to 30 hours each week volunteering, said it’s in the county’s interest to bring in a full-time veterans service officer.
“My work brings in more money, new money, a month to the county than it would to pay a service officer,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be me. I don’t care who it is as long as it’s somebody who’s qualified and trained and who gives a damn.”
Hernandez said volunteers have been “screaming” about the issue through letters to the paper, multiple calls to the county and several meetings for years.
“Watch, (the county will) open up that office, and within the first 30 to 60 days when word gets out, (veterans) will line up,” Hernandez said.