For the last 25 years, John Custer has been working to ensure that military veterans aren’t forgotten.
Custer, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, works out of the office of the Veterans Outreach Center on Mullan Road in Spokane Valley, a site that has been a refuge and a resource for current and former military personnel since 1981. The building opened on the heels of the country’s first Vet Center, launched a few years earlier as a supportive haven for disenfranchised soldiers transitioning back to civilian life after the Vietnam War.
In his role as a service officer, Custer deals with a variety of issues, from securing help for vets affected by agent orange in Southeast Asia to locking in benefits made available by the federal government but not always apparent on the surface.
One of those resources involves something called the “Aid and Attendance” program, a benefit available to wartime veterans or their surviving spouses. Those who qualify receive financial help for medical care, assisted living, in-home care or nursing home expenses.
To be eligible, veterans need to have served a minimum of 90 days active duty with at least one of those days during wartime. To receive the benefit, veterans or their surviving spouses must also be 65 years of age and older, or be permanently disabled and require assisted living or full-time, in-home care.
Qualifying veterans must also have verification of an honorable, general or medical discharge.
The maximum monthly benefit for assisted living or skilled nursing is listed at $1,949 for a veteran plus spouse; $1,644 for a single veteran and $1,054 for a surviving spouse.
Custer said while the benefit can provide significant help to many people, there is still a prevailing lack of knowledge about the program.
“A lot of folks don’t even know it exists,” he said.
According to research by the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are close to 2 million veterans and their spouses who are missing out on as much as $22 billion in available funds.
A recent report on the NBC Nightly News quoted Brad Mayes of the VA saying there is still a considerable number of veterans and their spouses who qualify for the benefits but “don’t know about the program or didn’t know they were eligible.”
Custer has been visiting Spokane area retirement centers to get the word out about Aid and Attendance and other resources. Mike Ogle, a counselor and veterans advocate who works with Custer at the Vet Center, said the goal is to align veterans and their families with programs that provide reliable support.
“I find people all the time who aren’t familiar with their benefits,” Ogle said
Greg Howard of Legacy Investment Advisors in Spokane Valley is doing his part to make sure local veterans understand how to navigate a system that can be perplexing at times. Howard joined Custer for a presentation at Fairwinds Assisted Living Center in Spokane recently and this week spoke before an American Legion group in Deer Park.
“This is a way we can help them know about the (Aid and Attendance) benefit,” Howard said. “I’ve had a couple of people say they’ve heard about it but for the most part, no one has heard of it or they didn’t think it pertained to them.”
Howard, who has worked in senior estate planning for the past seven years, makes it a point to “locate, educate, assist and qualify” veterans for a variety of resources. Sometimes that includes little known benefits like Aid and Attendance, other times it can mean qualifying them for programs such as Medicaid.
“I look at their goals and objectives and what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “It’s a matter of helping them qualify financially and making sure those benefits are integrated into a holistic approach.”
While Ogle described Aid and Attendance as “the most underutilized program” among veterans, he did express optimism that strides are being made to support those who have served their country in conflicts across the world. The Transition Assistance Program has been implemented to assist soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan while the Post 9-11 G.I. Bill provides financial assistance for housing and education.
“These are good programs that are helping people,” Ogle said. “A lot of them didn’t realize that their military service counted for something.”
Want to find out more?
To learn more about resources for local veterans, call John Custer or Mike Ogle at the Veterans Outreach Center in Spokane Valley at 444-8387. Additional information can be found at www.va.gov. To contact Greg Howard with Legacy Investment Advisors, call 927-0411.