Your community has a robust veterans services department and several other organizations

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Seth CrawfordNot every community values its veterans as much as we do. Right now, there is a surge in awareness and support for our veterans, but this was not always the case.

During the Vietnam War Era of 1960-1970, a lot of our veterans were treated poorly and did not have access to services while they worked to rejoin society. At that time, many ungrateful citizens of our country took out their frustrations with the war on these returning veterans. Thankfully, today, a majority of people understand and appreciate the sacrifices they make and service they provide this great county.

In Crook County, we love and respect our veterans. Your county government has a robust veterans services department, and there are several other strong veterans organizations in our community.

When you look around at the local volunteer activities, you are bound to see a veteran giving back, through veteran and non-veteran organizations alike.

Nationally, veterans make up 7.3 percent of the population, and the percentage of vets in Oregon is 8 percent. Here in Crook County, our vets make up a much larger percentage of our population. According to Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 2,585 vets living in our county, equaling 12 percent of our community, of which 30 percent are Vietnam veterans. 

The Crook County Veterans Services Department strives to reach new vets every day through outreach in our community. The outreach efforts include putting on an annual Thanksgiving Veterans Appreciation Dinner. Shannon Dearth, our veteran service officer (head of the Crook County Veterans Department) and his wife, Traci, came up with the idea to have this meal not only honoring all the vets in our community but also to engage underserved veterans.

Shannon and I have created a letter that reaches out to local new recruits from all branches of the military. The letter expresses appreciation for their commitment to serve, gives them best practices for record keeping while serving and makes it clear that when they are ready, Crook County Veterans Services will be here to help. We are working to see this program that was started here in Crook County adopted by all 36 counties in Oregon.

Crook County also provides ongoing services to local vets. Dealing with the VA can be frustrating for vets. Crook County Veterans Department acts as an advocate in navigating these complicated services. The work that the vets department does on behalf of veterans brought in $1,786,292 last year. This is a combination of monthly compensation and retroactive awards paid out to our local vets. The vast majority of this money flows directly into our economy.

There are several other organizations in our community whose mission it is to assist vets and their families, including the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), the American Legion and Auxiliary, and Band of Brothers. These organizations have 142, 208 and 788 members, respectively.

All of these groups care deeply for the state of our local vets, and many of their members invest their personal time and money to help those who have served our country. These organizations pack and deliver Christmas food boxes, supply emergency assistant to veterans, distribute essential health and hygiene items, help put on parades, and provide memorial services for families. The infrastructure these dedicated members of Crook County provide allows many of our vets a better life in our community.

If we were to describe all the services these organizations are providing to benefit our veteran community, this article would quickly turn into a novel. However, an item that needs to be highlighted is the Veterans Transportation Project.

Two years ago, the county was planning to send $30,000 of vet transportation funds to a regional intergovernmental agency that would provide transit services to our veterans for one year. There had to be a better way to use those resources.

An idea was born out of a conversation with a volunteer who relayed just how much time she was spending accessing vehicles located in Deschutes County to deliver our veterans to critical medical appointments.

Working with the Band of Brothers, we developed a plan to donate the money to their organization, a local nonprofit, enabling them to purchase a vehicle that would be a community asset for years to come. Two years later, I am proud to say this program is going strong, keeping Crook County dollars at home, supporting a local organization, and successfully delivering our vets to their medical services.

When you are trying to help veterans or non-vets, it is important to be careful to make sure the help given is not enabling them.

Recently, I saw a man holding a sign indicating he was a veteran panhandling on the corner of Third and Main streets. Wanting to help, I stopped and advised him that our vets department would be a better outlet to access services he deserved. I set him up with an appointment at our veterans department, and through this appointment, they were able to find numerous ways to help him. When it came time for him to access this help, he was unwilling to accept it. The next day, I was disappointed to see him out panhandling again.

There are numerous legitimate ways that vets and non-vets in need can access help in our community. Just giving these people money may not help them, could actually promote an addiction and might attract more individuals who want a hand out, not a hand up.

To be clear, it is imperative we find ways to help people in our community in need in ways that will have the most positive impact in their lives and give them an opportunity to once again be a productive member of society.

We are proud of what all these organizations do to support our veterans. We look forward to continuing the tradition of honoring our heroes. Their sacrifice and service is what preserves the freedoms we all enjoy.

As a final note, you may notice the big flag at the top of the grade is currently not flying, and it will remain this way until April. As stewards of this project, we take the protection of our flag very seriously. The high winds that Crook County experiences in the spring can cause serious damage to the flag. We look forward to Old Glory flying proudly again once the winds have calmed.

Seth Crawford serves as the Crook County Judge. He can be reached at 541-447-6555.

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