VA benefits forum draws handful of vets

Some veterans voice frustrations

As the Army celebrated its 239th birthday on Saturday, a small number of Montezuma County’s 2,400 veterans gathered for a benefits forum.

“Veterans Administration benefits are not a handout,” Rick Torres told two dozen veterans on Flag Day. “These are benefits that you’ve earned.”

Torres, Montezuma County’s veteran service officer, helps secure about $700,000 in annual benefits paid to the county’s enrolled veterans.

“Rick is a valuable asset here,” said VA outreach coordinator Barbara Martinez, who is based in Denver.

Torres said he has helped many local veterans and their families, including the spouse of a former POW in Yellow Jacket who died of heart disease. By documenting that POWs had a higher risk of heart disease, Torres said he was able to assist her in obtaining a presumptive disability claim from the VA.

“I simply help you put the claim together, so you can win,” he said.

Several veterans at the Montezuma County Veteran’s Forum on Saturday, June 9, shared concerns involving the VA clinic in Durango. One complaint regarded a canceled doctor’s appointment without any notification and another was lodged about a failure to return a phone call for more than a week.

“If no one complains, then the VA doesn’t know,” said Torres. “Call me. I’m here to help.”

Torres outlined numerous tax-free VA benefits, including disability assistance, which ranges from $130 to $2,858 per month for those with 10 percent and 100 percent disability, respectively. He also told those in attendance on Saturday that some VA benefits expire, citing the Montgomery GI Bill, which is only available for up to 10 years after military service.

Veterans were also reminded to remain realistic with their expectations.

“If you start a claim today, mentally prepare yourself that you will likely have to wait up to a year,” he said.

The Denver VA office processes about 1,600 monthly claims, up from about 1,200 per month five years ago, according to Martinez. She attributed the increase to the economy and the decade-long war against terrorism.

“There’s a lot of claims,” Martin said, “so we work late nights and on weekends.”

Former POWs, terminal and homeless veterans and those with an economic hardship routinely have their claims expedited and normally processed within 90 days, she said.

Torres also encouraged veterans to register with the VA for qualifying benefits, and said to have a medical physical at least once a year to maintain their status within the VA system. That information was especially helpful for Korean War veteran Eugene Sichta.

A Cortez resident for the past 19 years, Eugene Sichta said he was unaware the county had a veteran’s office coordinator.

“We will definitely be back to call on Rick,” he said.

Federal VA benefits include educational and job training opportunities, multiple life insurance options, burial assistance at 131 national cemeteries and survivor’s pensions available to both spouses and children. Colorado also offers various VA benefits, including property tax exemptions; grants for housing and counseling; and even hunting and fishing licenses.