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County searches for Vietnam vets deserving of benefits

Three conditions — bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, or Parkinson’s disease and other similar diseases — were added as presumptive conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure as

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The recent expansion of veterans’ disability benefits for those with Agent Orange exposure has the Crow Wing County Veteran Services Office in search of locals entitled to government-provided health care and compensation.

Veterans Service Officer Erik Flowers told the county board June 22 the office helped process more than a dozen new claims for Vietnam-era veterans for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits due to conditions now considered associated with the tactical herbicide Agent Orange. These three conditions — bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism, or Parkinson’s disease and other similar diseases — were added as part of the 2021 national defense authorization act passed by Congress.

“We are searching out surviving spouses and previous veterans who have been diagnosed with these … or the other presumptives of Agent Orange to reach out to our office if they’re not receiving benefits,” Flowers said. “Especially our surviving spouses. Some of these veterans have passed away long ago without this (law) being passed. You can be entitled to compensation and a lot of monetary help through the VA with this new change in law.”

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Flowers said the VA is in the process of working its way through previously denied claims related to these conditions, but new claims could take some time to work their way through the system.

Beyond the added presumptive conditions, Flowers also pointed to another recent expansion of veterans’ benefits because of the herbicide: the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019. This law made eligible Navy or Coast Guard veterans, along with their qualified dependents, who served between 1962 and 1975 aboard a U.S. military vessel inland or within 12 nautical miles from the demarcation line of the waters of Vietnam and Cambodia.

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Flowers said it’s difficult to identify veterans or their spouses who might have previously been left out of Agent Orange-related benefits because this wasn’t something tracked in a database.

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“If you know somebody who was in the Navy, in Vietnam, not sure if they were within 12 nautical miles … just reach out to our office and ask those questions. We can identify that and give you an answer,” Flowers said.

Flowers said the office was able to assist a surviving spouse of a deceased veteran who reached out following the recent changes.

“Despite the loss of her husband several years ago, she’s going to be compensated well from the VA,” Flowers said. “The VA’s going to finally be able to at least help the spouse out, which I know the veteran would be deeply appreciative and happy for that.”

Working together

Flowers’ plea came amid his quarterly update to the county board, during which he shared results of the work done assisting veterans in Crow Wing.

His update focused on that work through the lens of collaboration with other county departments, particularly those involved in the criminal justice system. Flowers, who before his appointment as veterans service officer served as the sheriff’s sergeant assigned to the county jail for about a decade, said the jail-based social workers, sheriff’s office, county attorney’s office and probation department all play a role in connecting veterans in need of assistance with the veteran services office. This includes through a kiosk in the jail allowing veterans to directly communicate with Flowers and his staff.

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The goal, he said, isn’t only to help with access to benefits, but to also help veterans in need succeed with what’s expected of them post-conviction and to prevent recidivism. This can include assisting in locating treatment options, for example, or ensuring they’re receiving any kind of help they might need beyond those specifically meant for veterans, such as nutritional assistance, child support or adult protection.

“Not every single veteran that comes to our office has veterans’ benefits and a lot of veterans don’t understand that. They’re not eligible,” Flowers said. “There’s so many different things that come into play to determine eligibility for the benefits for veterans and a lot of times it can be they don’t have enough time in service to be considered a veteran if they’re National Guard only, different things like that. With that being said, they’re still needing help and they still served our country.”

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For veterans who might not qualify for VA benefits or are in need for a specific reason, Flowers said he works with local posts of Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legions for financial assistance, along with tapping state resources such as the State Soldier’s Assistance Program and the COVID-19 Disaster Relief grant programs.

The grants specific to COVID-19 are no longer available as funding was exhausted, but Flowers noted the amount of assistance provided to Crow Wing County veterans remains higher than usual into 2021. So far, about $80,000 of assistance for veterans through state programming was distributed this year.

“We continue to keep on pushing those grants because they’re very needed for a lot of veterans right now,” he said.

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For information or help for veterans

The Crow Wing County Veteran Services Office is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and is located on the first floor at 204 Laurel St., Suite 14, Brainerd.

Call 218-824-1058 or 866-507-1058.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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Erik Flowers, Crow Wing County veterans service officer, gives his quarterly report to the county board June 22, 2021. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

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062421.N.BD.VSO.jpg
Erik Flowers, Crow Wing County veterans service officer, gives his quarterly report to the county board June 22, 2021. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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