Veterans leave a war, but war never leaves a veteran
Published January 26, 2024
Written by Henry
Photography by Simply American
On August 10, 2023, at the Ottawa County Finance and Administration Committee meeting, Commissioner Sylvia Rhodea proposed that the County commit to expand the Department of Veterans Affairs to better serve our veterans.
Rhodea shared that her research showed Ottawa County veterans are being diverted to Kent and Muskegon counties for needs such as counseling.
“There are also a number of other things that Muskegon and Kent both are providing that we are not. And so, while we might be minimally meeting statutory requirements, we can do a better job,” Rhodea said. “This is a part of population that is important to us.”
August 21, 2023 Ottawa County Finance & Administration Committee Special Work Session.
A look at websites alone shows that Ottawa County needs to raise the bar on what is offered to veterans. Following is a comparison of Kent, Muskegon, and Ottawa county websites:
Kent County’s veteran population is 4.3% (28,175) of the total population (657,984) as of the 2020 Census. Kent has a median income of $69,786.
The Kent County Veterans Services website is filled with a great deal of information. In addition to the overview page, there are 10 submenu items to choose from—anything from benefit eligibility to events, including a submenu of additional resources for education, employment and job training assistance, health and counseling, information and referral assistance, and a few others.
On the overview page, the department boasts being able to assist with:
• Service-connected disability claims
• VA non-service connected pension applications
• Surviving Spouse pension applications
• County and federal burial benefits
• Veterans ID cards
• Eligibility Verification Reports
• Educational benefits
• Military service record retrieval
• Soldiers and Sailors Relief Fund
• Assistance working with social services and government agencies
• Discharge upgrade, if possible
• Document notarization
• Many other Veterans issues
Kent County even gives a breakdown of “Veterans Service Performance Measures.”
Muskegon County has a total population of 175,814, and 6.2% (10,884) are veterans. The Muskegon County Veterans Services website has a large variety of information also, with links to many of the forms a veteran would need to access as well as submenus full of resources and information.
The Ottawa County Veterans Affairs website offers only one page of information, and only one link—to the burial benefit form. The site provides no resources for a vet needing counseling or for the family of a veteran.
While a website doesn’t give a full view of what is actually going on in the counties, it does show that Ottawa County may have room to improve.
During the August 22, 2023 Board of Commissioners meeting, a few of the heroes among us stood at the podium thanking the Board for stepping up to serve the vets by expanding the veterans department.
“Today, there are 21.8 million veterans in the United States who have dedicated years of hard work and commitment to our country. I stand proudly among them, having served in the Army during the Vietnam War… To this day, many veterans still face side effects of war. We need to support our veterans to cope with this. An average of 22 veterans take their own lives daily, which is heartbreaking, but true. By supporting our veterans, we can reduce this number… This is an important reason why we need to support our veterans, to help make them feel honored and [give] them the treatment they both need and deserve to live their lives with dignity… Let’s make Ottawa County a unique place where we can provide quality services on a local level, including therapy groups for those with PTSD who would benefit from being together with others who truly understand the isolation they often feel.”
“I served in the Marine Corps. I got out right before 9/11. They tried to get me to come back, and I decided that it wasn’t for me anymore. I do have a lot of friends that are actually still serving. They’re looking at 30 years in. Seeing what some of them have gone through, seeing what my father has gone through. He is a Vietnam vet. He now has Parkinson’s and he’s working with the VA, and I cannot believe the amount of work and struggle… working with him. He doesn’t understand the computer technology. What he has to go through to try to get approved for disability… To have a place where I could actually go nearby in Ottawa County would be amazing.”
“…[T]hank you so very much for the opportunity to speak on behalf of myself and other veterans. Just to put it simply, I spent 25 years with US Army Special Forces, retired 17 years ago. It took 10 years to receive the disability rating that I have now. I was shot twice, blown up once. I spent a cumulative of nine years in combat, and it should not take 10 years with five different states, 11 different VA facilities. Finally, the Grand Rapids VA facility did [provide] some sort of help… To open an Ottawa County office is imperative. We shouldn’t have to travel to Wyoming to see people that don’t know what they are doing.”
“I’m absolutely 100% on board with this, and I know that the majority of the veterans in our county are on board with this. We do come out of the military, and we are seeking help, help that we are unable to receive through the VA quickly. The VSOs are extremely overwhelmed… We have needs that are not actually being met. We are being set to the side…Younger people need this help. There [are] also older veterans. The older veterans are trying to navigate a system on computers. That is becoming more and more difficult. They need classes. They need education and they need help. They need someone to sit with them and be like, ‘Excuse me, sir, I understand what you’re going through. Let’s work through this together.’”
Even members of the public who questioned the need for a veterans department, told the Board that the vets they know were traveling out of the county for services.
Jason Schenkel, a Grand Haven resident, is Ottawa County’s new Director of Veteran Affairs. He introduced himself to the Board of Commissioners on January 2, 2023.
Starting his 23-year career in 1992, Schenkel served on active duty as an artilleryman. After retirement he continued his work in the veterans space and worked for two local companies. He, along with his wife and two children, decided that Ottawa County was the place to call home.
“I’m excited to work with County leaders and the Board of Commissioners. We have a pretty good fight that we need to win, and that’s taking care of our veterans.” Schenkel continued, “And we have another war now, which is our spouses and family members, to make sure they’re taken care of as well.”
Schekel also informed the Board, “Professionally, we’re already started. I’ve already worked with County Administrator John, and what that plan is starting to look like. And, it’s gonna come together fairly quick.” Schenkel called his plan the “best in class.” He will be looking at other counties in the state and nationally to see what can be done here in Ottawa County.
On January 23, 2024, Director Jason Schenkel presented his first committee update.
Schenkel began by reading the new mission statement:
“Ottawa County Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing accurate, efficient, timely information and services to our veterans and families. We will advocate for our veterans and cultivate purposeful community partnerships.”
The philosophy of the department also is new: “Deeds not words.” Schenkel shared that he has met with other department heads and is learning how they can collaborate and make modifications in the short term for the good. One of the upgrades he would like to see is software for his office. Right now 99% of the work is done on paper.
Meetings are scheduled with Muskegon and Kent County Veterans Services to look at best practices. Schenkel also will be meeting with local VFWs to assess needs directly from the veterans.
Schenkel sees the future of the department as being built on a foundation with four pillars. The foundation will be the County and the community. The pillars will be employment, education, health, and quality of life. The pillars will hold up the roof, which will consist of the veterans and their families.
There is a lot of work to be done to achieve his vision for the department. Schenkel stated that looking at the services offered today, veterans would find there are no resources available for employment or education.
Ottawa County Can And Will Do Better
Many veterans struggle with the aftermath of war, experiencing a multitude of different things from physical and mental health issues, difficulty adjusting to civilian life, navigating the VA system, and other life challenges.
It’s time for Ottawa County to step up to the plate and go above and beyond to serve those who put their lives on the line for our freedom.
Many stand before us with no visible scars, at one time or another entering into war and coming home very different than when they left. It’s time for Ottawa County to step up to the plate and do better to serve those who put their lives on the line for our freedom.