“Ask not what your country can do for you,” President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural speech. “Ask what you can do for your country.”
That is the essence of military service.
But it can have lasting effects — physical, mental, emotional — on the men and women who served.
About 43,200 veterans live in Vermont, about 1,500 of them in Lamoille County, according to veterans and census officials, and about a quarter of Vermont veterans have some type of disability.
It’s 75 miles or more from the communities in the county to the nearest Veterans Administration hospital in White River Junction, so local organizations have stepped up to help local veterans who need it.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion organizations are the first point of contact for many veterans, and offer both socializing opportunities and help with programs. For example, applying for federal VA benefits can involve lots of paperwork and many questions.
“Veterans are always welcome at a local VFW post,” says Tom Hemenway, commander of VFW Post 7779 in Hyde Park. “We try to get them in the right direction within the VA system.” Other VFW posts are in Hyde Park and Morrisville, and in neighboring counties.
The American Legion has posts in Cambridge, Johnson, Morristown, Stowe and Waterbury.
“Anything that will enhance the quality of life for a veteran, posts in Lamoille County support,” says Catherine Tester, southern area commander for the Vermont American Legion — temporary assistance to local vets and their families, support from fellow veterans, career fairs, and donations to other programs that support veterans in different ways.
Local help is also available from the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs. It helps anyone who has served in any branch of the military. Director Robert Burke says his office has local and state programs to help vets, and also help vets connect with other state and federal resources.
Many veterans can qualify for disability benefits, Burke says, but don’t realize it. That disability coverage applies to any conditions that occurred while a person was on active duty, provided no personal misconduct was involved. So, if a soldier got hurt tripping on a tree root while walking to a dining hall, that’s a covered disability.
Among the programs offered by the Vermont Office of Veteran Affairs are:
• 24-hour veteran and family outreach hotline (888-607-8773).
• General assistance (call 211 from any phone 24 hours a day).
• Local assistance from non-VA counselors 24 hours a day; see the list on the Veterans Affairs website.
• Financial assistance for low-income veterans facing a critical life need.
The Vermont National Guard and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also offer all sorts of assistance.
Local agencies help, too
Every month, about 600 veterans commit suicide, federal authorities say. In 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 25 Vermont veterans killed themselves — a rate much higher than the national rate for veterans.
Suicide is a serious problem in Lamoille County, says Michael Hartman, director of behavioral health for Lamoille County Mental Health. A three-year study ending in 2014 found Lamoille County had the highest suicide rate of any county in Vermont.
Hartman’s agency offers a pretty broad array of mental health services for all, regardless of ability to pay. For veterans, it can connect them with mental health professionals who are also veterans, and works with VA-sponsored services to find and help veterans who need it.
Lamoille County Mental Health is part of a national group called Zero Suicide, has a mobile crisis team, and trains local emergency workers and home health aides on how to recognize a possible suicidal situation.
Copley Hospital also offers emergency services around the clock and provides medical care in a number of specialties.