For veterans in rural areas, finding medical or financial support can mean hours of driving to reach the nearest Veterans Affairs (VA) office.
Combatting this was the motivation for the WestCare Foundation to initiate its first Veterans Connection Cafe at the Mountain View Library in Randle in November 2019. Following Randle’s success, the program this January was established in Westport, according to WestCare Regional Coordinator Donald Lachman.
Through the partnership between WestCare and Timberland Regional Library, veterans and their family members from the Randle area can schedule an appointment at the library with a service officer for assistance with health care, pensions, medical equipment and other benefits.
According to previous reporting in The Chronicle, Vietnam veterans who have diabetes from Agent Orange exposure have been walked through the often-complicated disability compensation paperwork at the library.
At the time of the program’s launch, Mary Prophit was the manager of the Mountain View Library. She is a veteran herself and was highly passionate about the program.
Now, Judi Brummett, who has worked for Timberland for several years, is the manager at both the Packwood and Mountain View libraries. Over her years in Randle, she has collected many memories of the Veterans Connection Cafe benefitting local people and families.
“We have another patron who served in Vietnam and had severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to the point that it was difficult for his family. And he is now receiving counseling. I think he also had his benefits increased, so he has additional income, and his spouse says he is a totally different person now,” Brummett said, in one of many other examples of patrons who were helped. “She’s just shocked at the change that this has made in him, and not just in him but in her as well because things at home are so much more comfortable now.”
Last year, the VA clinic in Chehalis was closed. Even while open, Randle-area veterans needed to drive over an hour to get there. Now, the nearest VA office is Olympia. Even though the services cafe is only open once a month (and will not be held in March, as the service officer is going to be out for a surgery), it still has a huge impact on the lives of those rural veterans and their families.
Timberland Regional Library data from February 2020 showed each of its five counties’ adult populations — Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Thurston and Pacific — are over 12% veterans. That’s disproportionately high when compared to other counties in the state and country, according to Timberland Executive Director Cheryl Heywood.
Brummett also said she thought Randle specifically had a high density of veterans due to its peaceful, quiet nature and because some residents move there to escape the chaos of their pasts.
Rural veterans in Grays Harbor County face a similar challenge in drive times to the nearest VA office. After the success at the Mountain View Library, WestCare and Timberland in January established another Veterans Connection Cafe in Westport.
“(It’s) transformative. Not only in terms of the recognition of what you did, but actually that pension, those benefits to help you live better,” Lachman said. “That’s the biggie here is that there are millions of dollars in unclaimed VA benefits, pensions and services, along with state and county (benefits).”
The Veterans Connection Cafe is done through a big collaborative effort, said Lachman, who wanted to credit the following people and entities:
• Keith Looker, director and VSO, Lacey Veteran Services Hub
• Gary Walker, American Legion Post 94, Lacey
• Lucas L. Bruner, MA American Legion, Department of Washington, assistant department service officer
• Heidi Palmer, Lewis County Veterans Programs
• Leadership, WestCare WA/WAServes Veterans Coordinated Case Management
• Gwyn Tarrence, VSO, commander, American Legion Post, Aberdeen
• Leadership and Librarians, Timberland Regional Library
• Larry Blackledge, American Legion 5th District commander, Southwest Washington