Agency strives to help veterans in remote areas - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Agency strives to help veterans in remote areas

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Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2008 10:48 pm | Updated: 9:51 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The paperwork piles up on Roger Begay's desk - 1,800 cases in all, each telling the story of a veteran in need of help. They reach out from Tuba City and Page, Chinle and Kayenta, and all across the state.

As a benefits counselor with the Arizona Department of Veterans' Services, Begay, a Navajo and a former U.S. Army sergeant, makes regular treks to these and other remote places in the northern third of Arizona.

There, veterans will wait in droves to work with him on navigating a maze of state and federal benefits processes.

Other times, veterans will travel up to four hours to see Begay or Martin Vigil, a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who is the other counselor in the Flagstaff office.

"The vets are the ones getting hurt. They're not being evaluated properly," Begay said.

Things have become easier of late, however. On this day, Begay is setting aside a stack of about 100 cases to send to an office that opened recently in Show Low. That spares Begay and Vigil trips to Holbrook, Winslow, Pinetop and Springerville. They have transferred about 500 cases to the new office.

Their agency plans to open offices later this year in Chinle and Page, both currently in the Flagstaff office's territory, and also in Parker and Safford.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Janet Napolitano cited expansion of bene-fits counseling for Arizona's 700,000 veterans as an example of Arizona investing in its future, even as it faces a budget deficit topping $1 billion. She urged lawmakers to continue toward a goal of putting a counselor within an hour's drive of every Arizona veteran.

Napolitano's push to provide more benefits counseling to veterans was based on recommendations in a 2006 report by her Veterans Task Force.

In 2006, the number of benefits counselors increased from 21 to 41.

The budgets for fiscal 2007-08 and 2008-09 include an additional $1.1 million to add 19 counselors, bringing the total to 60 statewide. Total budget for benefits counseling eachfiscal year is around $3.1 million.

By the end of this year, there will be 47 counselors around Arizona, said Dave Hampton, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans' Services. And the agency opened benefits counseling offices recently in Cottonwood and Bullhead City.

The office in Show Low was welcome news to Kelly Moore, a former U.S. Navy petty officer suffering from constant back pain and unable to work. Living just outside town, he formerly had to wait to meet with counselors from the Flagstaff office during monthly visits.

"Convenience-wise - it's really great," Moore said.

While there hasn't been a move to cut funding for the program as legislators address the deficit, it's still a worry for Sen. Jim Waring, R-Phoenix, who has sponsored many bills to help veterans and military members.

"In a budget year like this," Waring said. "I worry that it's not going to get done."

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