Veteran Roy Sullivan of Kenly knows it’s been too long since a doctor gave him a thorough physical exam.
Sullivan’s hearing and vision are starting to go, and he worries he might be developing diabetes.
For his service in the Vietnam War, Sullivan likely earned benefits that could help him address those health concerns. But up until recently, he said, he had been reluctant to apply for government assistance.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to keep my own self up,” he said. “But things are getting more difficult; problems are showing up that I didn’t used to have.”
Last week, Sullivan was among more than 1,000 veterans to get help with benefits at a Veterans Benefit Action Center held for three days at the Johnston County Agricultural Center. Former servicemen and women got help applying for benefits, appealing denied claims, working through issues and finding answers to questions they’ve had for years.
The event was a joint effort of the American Legion in North Carolina, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regional benefit office in Winston-Salem and the Johnston County Veterans’ Services office.
The American Legion and VA have hosted four similar events in the past 14 months, and the one in Johnston set the record for day-one turnout, said Cajun Comeau, director of veterans services for the N.C. American Legion.
Johnston only fell about 40 people shy of beating the overall attendance record, Comeau said. That record remains with Jacksonville, which has the second-highest per capita population of veterans in the United States.
1,048 Unofficial number of veterans served
3 Days of service
$470,000 Estimated value of benefits injected into Johnston County’s economy
On Friday, Comeau could not stop raving about how smoothly the operation was running, and he attributed that to the organizing efforts of Robert B. Boyette Jr., Johnston’s veterans’ service officer. Providing a high level of service is crucial, Comeau said, because it makes sure veterans get all of their questions answered.
“If you don’t have an efficient operation, and you’re just shuttling people through here and doing a 75-percent job, this whole event becomes negative,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many you helped, what matters is the ones that you did not do everything you could for.”
Connecting so many veterans with benefits also means more money in the pockets of Johnston residents, Comeau said.
The official tally will take a a few weeks to complete, but Comeau estimated the Veterans Benefit Action Center could inject $470,000 into the local economy.
In addition to VA representatives, Boyette went out of his way to bring in other groups to offer their services to vets. The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles brought a bus to aid with driver’s license issues, and the NCWorks Career Center helped vets apply for jobs at Lowe’s, Johnson Health and Novo Nordisk.
Boyette also called in representatives from MetLife, which has a dental insurance plan for veterans who do not qualify for VA dental benefits, which require a 100 percent disability rating.
“We wanted to bridge that gap,” Boyette said.
With donations from Carolina Packers, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the Johnston County chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America served free sausage and hot dogs all three days of the event, president Robbie Hardison said. The goal was simply to serve, he said, but the Johnston chapter did manage to add more than half a dozen new members.
Under ordinary circumstances, Hardison said, veterans have just one service officer in their county available to help with benefits. That officer submits the information to the VA office in Winston-Salem, and it takes as long as a year to get an answer.
The Veterans Benefit Action Center had 34 VA representatives who were able to give vets answers and connect them with benefits, and they did it in a day, not a year, he said.
“We had people to go in with their information, they were rated at 100 percent (disability) and they were set up for direct deposit of their benefits,” Hardison said. “All they had to do was go home and wait for it to show up in their bank account.”
Expecting to see just a trickle of people at the event on Friday, Johnston County Commissioner Cookie Pope said she was overwhelmed by how many vets came to get help.
“It fills my heart with pride when I see these men that I know served so I could enjoy so much,” she said. “There’s so much on the national scene now and the state-level scene, where we aren’t doing enough for veterans, and I think this speaks well of our county.”
Starting in 2016, Comeau said, the VA and American Legion plan to host four benefit action centers a year in North Carolina. They will be in Fayetteville, Jacksonville, Hickory and Waynesville. Moving to a more regular schedule should boost participation even higher, Comaeu said, because veterans will be able to mark their calendars more than a year in advance.
Fayetteville will be the closest event to Johnston County, and Boyette said he plans to support that event going forward instead of trying to duplicate it in Smithfield.
For more information about upcoming events, follow @ALVetService on Twitter.