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Creation of County Service Office aims to help area veterans

Establishing a County Service Office would provide additional assistance to the almost 11,000 veterans residing in Washington County.
Mayor Dan Eldridge introduced the idea to the Budget Committee during its May meeting after receiving visits from Donald Smith, assistant commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs for the East Tennessee division.
Eldridge said Washington County is one of six counties in the state that does not have a VA department.
“The VA Office at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Johnson City says they have been doing the county’s job, but no longer,” he told committee members.
In a follow-up interview, Eldridge said the goal is now to form a partnership.
“The county has a responsibility for outreach to our local veterans that the staff in the state office does not have time to do,” he said.
TDVA has 12 field offices to assist more than 2 million veterans and family members with filing claims for federal compensation and pension benefits and provide information on resources.
The field office at Mountain Home will continue to serve veterans in Carter, Greene, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties. In addition, the state believes veterans would benefit from a County Service Officer assigned to each of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
According to Yvette Martinez, assistant commissioner of outreach and communications for the TDVA, Washington County is actually one of 14 — not six — counties in the state without a CSO.
The other 13 counties are Cheatham, Clay, Davidson, Dickson, Dyer, Hamilton, Hickman, Jackson, Lake, Madison, Morgan, Trousdale and Van Buren
“Having a CSO in each county enables veterans to stay closer to home and provides the opportunity for veterans to build a relationship with that individual,” Martinez said. “The CSO can also serve as an advocate for a veteran who has been denied benefits.”
The Washington County CSO would work in partnership with representatives in the Mountain Home field offices to direct veterans to federal benefits. The CSO would also provide assistance with local and state resources, conduct outreach efforts, and visit veterans in hospitals, nursing homes and jails.
Having a CSO assigned in every county is something the state has been working on for years. “We’re doing our best to keep services growing,” Martinez said. “The more people we have, the more veterans we can help.”
An onsite expert would also benefit the county. During 2010-2011, more than $28 million in tax-free federal income was awarded to the 10, 844 veterans in Washington County.
No state funding is available for a Washington County CSO, and a budget would have to be developed if the commission decides to move ahead in establishing the office with one part- or full-time employee.
Eldridge said he would like members of the General Health and Welfare Committee to meet with the TDVA assistant commissioner for East Tennessee and make a recommendation to the full commission.