BRADENTON - It's hardly a surprise that a Coast Guard veteran would be the man in command of Manatee County's Veterans Services Division, and dedicated to helping veterans navigate the system that thanks them for their service.
|Manatee County Veterans Service Officer Andy Huffman says veterans need to apply to get the benefits they deserve, and his department can help them.|
Andy Huffman served more than 20 years in the Coast Guard, retiring in February 2003 as a senior chief petty officer (E-8). He moved to Iowa and went to college and got a job helping process veterans medical, pension and educational claims for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He later transferred to St. Petersburg in June 2007.
He started in late September as the county's Veterans Services Officer.
The real challenge of the job is not so much helping veterans of the current Iraq/Afghanistan conflict, Huffman said, but securing benefits for entitled veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The current generation of troops is better educated, he said, and the military is doing a much better job than before of preparing those in the discharge process for their transition to VA services.
"Anybody that's leaving injured, anybody that's leaving hurt or has a disability, we're seeing that they're taken care of immediately after they leave the service," he said. "And it is part of their outprocessing."
Older generations didn't get that kind of preparation, and are often unaware that they are eligible for a variety of benefits.
| FOR MORE INFORMATION
What: Manatee County Stand Down
When: 8 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: Manatee County Fairgrounds, Palmetto
Why: To help homeless people, and especially veterans, with medical and other services
Contact: Andy Huffman, Manatee County Veterans Service Officer, (941) 749-3030.
Huffman can help veterans document their service and prepare paperwork, a skill he learned while working on claims for the VA.
A tour in Miami when he was on active duty in the Coast Guard had persuaded his wife that Florida was the place to be, and after he retired from the service to Iowa, "She called me on it," he said.
She didn't have to twist his arm too hard, though, and he has found the area and the weather to his liking. "Our tour in Miami sold us on Florida," he said, plus his wife has family in Sarasota. And the weather's better than Iowa.
Having a job where he doesn't have to travel and be away from his wife and children at night is a plus, he said, unlike his service in the Coast Guard as well as other important positions he held, like the job of temporary air marshal right after the 9/11 attacks.
Working at the VA, he noticed that there was an advocacy program that was always coming up and talking to them. "I thought that I could better serve the veteran by being an advocate and using my experience and knowledge that I gained from the VA, in helping the veteran process and gain his entitlements," Huffman said. "So what happened is I applied with the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs and I was hired from the VA over to the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs as an advocate."
From there, he heard from his supervisor that there was a position for him in Manatee County where he could help the state agency and veterans. He applied for the position and got it.
Homeless Stand Down
On Saturday, the county and other local agencies will be holding a "stand down" for the homeless from 8 a.m. to noon at the Manatee County Fairgrounds in Palmetto and Huffman hopes that homeless veterans show up, though the services are available for everyone who's homeless, regardless of veterans status. It's hoped that veterans can start the process of re-entering society and there will be agencies with health assistance, job help and more. There will even be a judge to deal with minor court cases.
Agencies that will be there include the Manatee County Health Department (for flu and pneumonia shots and HIV testing), Manatee Glens (for psychiatry and counseling services) and Manatee County Rural Health Services (for primary health care physicians, a podiatrist, vision and eye screening. A van from the VA will also be on site with medical personnel to offer medical and dental services.
At last year's Stand Down, about 600 homeless people got help, including 150 veterans, and a 20 percent increase is expected this year. Among the aid for this year's event is a $900 contribution from Manatee County government.
Solving the problem of homeless veterans is a major effort with the VA, Huffman said. "It's a problem throughout the country. The VA secretary has deemed this as one of his priorities: to diminish (the number of) homeless veterans in the United States," he said.
There are many reasons veterans become homeless, Huffman said, and many Vietnam veterans never received the care, education and comfort they needed when they returned. Many did not seek mental health treatment when they returned, but today the VA and community services groups are trying to reach out to veterans, he said, to help them get their life back in order.
For the Stand Down, a veteran should bring his or her documentation of service, but no one will be denied service if they don't have documentation.
Veterans have an economic impact of up to $93 million a year because of the benefits they receive, Huffman said. There are about 40,000 veterans in the county, and there will be a 10 percent increase in monies and veterans in Manatee each year.
He said there's a real team feeling at the county. "I would like to see more community support for veterans here in Manatee County," Huffman said. "And I think that's going to be part of my main responsibilities here: veteran awareness and reaching out to the community and informing veterans of the benefits and entitlements that they may not be aware of."
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