Veterans benefits counselor John Joseph

Veterans help their fellows across Peninsula on paperwork maze, reaching crucial appointments

Vietnam veteran John Joseph is classified “100 percent disabled” — he’ll tell you that right off — yet he’s one of the hardest-working men in the service business.

Every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Joseph volunteers to counsel fellow vets, including those who, like him, suffered exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Together, they navigate the paperwork needed to receive help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Joseph and his standard poodle, Snickers, greet vets, as well as widowed spouses of veterans, at Serenity House’s Port Angeles housing resource office at 520 E. First St.

“We do walk-ins,” Joseph said, “and we help any vet from any service, anywhere.”

He and fellow counselor Mark Anderson work with people who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to help them determine which benefits to seek.

“If you don’t have someone to help, you can fall through the cracks,” said Joseph, a Navy corpsman from 1967 to 1970.

A few blocks away at the Port Angeles Veterans Center, 216 S. Francis St., another kind of volunteering goes on — very early in the day.

Trained drivers, such as Mike Kelly and Glenn Cutler, get there shortly before 5 a.m. to pick up passengers for a trip to the Seattle Veterans Hospital.

These are vets who have appointments starting at 8 a.m., so their volunteer drivers make sure they’re at the Bainbridge Island ferry dock by 6:40, ready to catch the 7:05 a.m. boat.

These drivers, coordinated by Disabled American Veterans office volunteer Venay Money, can transport as many as seven passengers in the DAV van. They typically return home, after all of the appointments have been kept, in the late afternoon.

“It kills me for a day or two, but that’s OK,” said Cutler, who began volunteering after retirement from his post as Port Angeles’ director of public works.

Before that, Cutler served some 30 years in the Navy. He’s well-acquainted with bureaucratic systems, so he also volunteers with Joseph and Anderson on Wednesdays, working through that maze of VA benefit forms.

Cutler, Kelly and their co-volunteers find this work pays well — not in dollars, but in basic human interaction.

“This is the thing that makes my week,” said Kelly, who last Friday was scheduled to drive a 94-year-old World War II vet to his Seattle appointment.

“It’s a slice of life,” he said, in which he gets to spend time with people who have seen and done plenty.

Kelly usually gathers his riders at the Veterans Center, but if need be, he’ll go to Sequim — even Kingston on one occasion.

A retired schoolteacher who served in the Marines in Vietnam, Kelly also trains new volunteer drivers. Several ride-alongs are required, as are background checks and physicals.

In Port Angeles, Money has six volunteer drivers, while Bud Clark, her counterpart in Jefferson County, has another six taking vets from Port Townsend and environs over to Seattle.

More are needed, said Money, because volunteers occasionally are sick or go on vacation.

These drivers “are really appreciated,” she said, “because it’s a lot of responsibility” for not a lot of pay.

“You get a $6 voucher for lunch,” Cutler quipped.

Gary Lane, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, volunteers because, well, he loves it. A service officer at the American Legion in Port Townsend, he’s on call to help vets with their VA benefit forms. Lane can be reached at 360-731-6398.

“There’s a lot of help out there,” he said, adding that he also helps veterans via Jefferson County’s emergency relief fund, a source of assistance with utility bills and groceries.

To do well in this volunteer gig, “you have to have a love for your fellow veteran,” said Money, a longtime worker with local vet groups.

“If you’re not a vet,” she added, “you’ve got to appreciate them.”

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