A new campaign is underway to reach out to Florida veterans, who do not realize they can collect millions of dollars in benefits. While the state has about 1.6 million veterans, for example, only about 40-percent are enrolled in Veteran Affairs Health Care. Now, the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs says they want to thank the men and women for their service by helping them to take advantage of the federal and state benefits owed to them.
Currently, Florida veterans get more than $13 billion a year from the federal government, for thinks like education, pension, and health care benefits, but the state’s Department of Veteran Affairs Executive Director Mike Prendergast says there are many veterans who are not getting the benefits or the money they deserve for their service.
So, his department decided to unveil a new statewide multimedia campaign to get the word out. It especially targets underserved veterans.
“Most commonly these veterans are among the Vietnam era population from the Vietnam War, also female veterans and most recently our veterans, who’ve returned from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Prendergast. "Be they guard, reserve or active duty, they all have benefits, and we want to make sure that they can avail themselves of those benefits. Or in the case of some of the survivors, for those service members that have passed on, we want to make sure they’re survivors and their children have access to those benefits.”
Florida is home to about 450,000 Vietnam veterans. Yet it’s estimated that only one-third of the state’s Vietnam Vets are receiving federal benefits. District 2 Commander Mark Alvarez, a Vietnam veteran, is with the state’s Veterans of Foreign Wars. He says when he came back from the Vietnam War, he along with many other veterans were not very well received. He says now that times have changed, he believes it’s in the vets best interest to take advantage of the benefits.
“In going up through the ranks, I have met both sides of the coin, those who take full advantage of the VA benefits, and those who are still reluctant to go into the VA system and get treated or get what’s coming to them," said Alvarez. "And, I encourage all Vietnam veterans and all veterans in particular to please sign up with the VA, come in, and see what’s available.”
Another target for the campaign is female vets, totaling at more than 140,000 in the state. And, Operation Iraqi freedom Veteran Courtney Heidelburg says she’s glad the campaign highlights services female veterans need.
“I know the VA now offers women’s health care, which I think is wonderful, and I’d certainly encourage female veterans to find out what is available to them in that area,” remarked Heidelburg.
James Fox, a Tallahassee native, spent four years in the air force and now, with the help of the VA, has five years of free health care. He also has a free ride to Florida State University. And, Fox says he has a message for vets who have been thinking about getting a college education, but don’t believe they can.
“There are people waiting out here to help you! I don’t worry about tuition. It’s paid for with the post 9/11 GI Bill," said Fox. "The way I see it is my job is to go to school. I get paid to go to class. The VA gives you a certain amount of money per credit hour, so when I go to class I clock in.”
Prendergast with the VA says the department is not only doing this for veterans, like Fox, but for the taxpayers of Florida as well.
“If a veteran or veteran’s family member is accessing benefits for any type of health care, counseling, education, or any services out there that could be paid for by the U.S. Department of the Veteran Affairs, what, that in effect means, is our taxpayers are paying for the service twice,” said Prendergast.
The campaign includes reaching out to the vets through a new logo, a revamped department web site, and a smart phone app as well as public service announcements and radio ads. Florida’s veteran population is the third largest in the nation.