Veteran services officer nominated for award

Uncovering forgotten benefits is Torres’ specialty

Rick Torres has been nominated for the Louis Nardini Award for his service to local and regional military veterans. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Rick Torres has been nominated for the Louis Nardini Award for his service to local and regional military veterans.

Veteran Services officer Rick Torres spent 17 years serving his country. Now his mission is to help veterans realize their earned benefits for doing the same.

“The majority of veterans are not receiving all of their benefits, or are not aware they qualify, so I am committed to getting them what they deserve,” said Torres, of Montezuma County Veterans Services.

In 2012, Montezuma County bumped up veterans services, relocating it to a more convenient location at the county annex, and providing a full-time and part-time benefits specialists.

Of the 2,400 veterans in the county, Torres and assistant Sarah Kuhn have been in contact with 740 of those veterans, plus many more from outside the area.

“We never turn anyone away,” Torres said. “In this area, there are a lot of traveling veterans commuting to work, or working seasonal jobs at Mesa Verde or in the oil and gas fields.”

On Monday, Torres’ efforts were recognized by the county commission who presented him with a nomination for the Louis Nardini Award for sustained excellence in providing services to military vets in 2014.

“We’re proud of the work you have done,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel.

From May 2013 to May 2014, Torres and Kuhn have brought in an average of $58,681 per month in benefit value to local veterans. Year-to-date, Torres’ office has generated $704,172 in benefits plus $564,029 in retroactive payments.

“Nothing makes me happier than seeing a veteran come in with an award letter for benefit payments,” Torres said. “In a down economy, the extra money makes a world of difference.”

He said the most common benefits veterans miss out on are health care, disability claims, and pensions.

“Qualifying for VA health care covers veterans under Obamacare, so there are no penalties or having to go out and purchasing insurance,” Torres said.

Torres spends the day filing claims and obtaining service records for hundreds of veterans per month. Visits to the office have gone from an average of 40 to 50 per month to regularly reaching into the hundreds per month in 2013.

“We investigate each record very closely looking for nuggets to beef up payments,” he said. “Sometimes we find benefits, such as an injury during service that ended up being long-term, that a veteran qualifies for but did not realize.”

Homelessness among veterans is on the rise, and often they qualify for benefits they are not receiving, Torres said.

“We may be able to help them get off the street and get an apartment,” he said.

On Nov. 14, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Archuleta Veterans Services will host a benefits information event at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. This event will provide the homeless and struggling veterans of surrounding counties with support, encouragement, and resources to help them integrate back into the civilian world.

Responding to the award nomination, “I’m totally surprised by the nomination and honored for the recognition of our efforts,” Torres said.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com