Veterans serving veterans during COVID-19

Rand (left), Cesar, Nicholas, Santiago, Alex, Blake and therapy dog, Rocky, are prepared for clients and visitors at the South Orange County Vet Center in Mission Viejo. Martha Phillips/Lariat

Military veterans who need help obtaining their benefits during COVID-19 have resources available to them at the federal, state and local level, including resources through Saddleback College. Professionals at agencies and military personnel are ensuring that veterans are aware of the benefits available to them and providing assistance in navigating the paperwork. 

Many offices that serve veterans have limited access due to the coronavirus, which has impeded the process to file claims for benefits. However, agencies are working together to ensure that all veterans receive the benefits that they have earned through their active service.

There are a multitude of different benefits available to veterans and their families depending on where, when, how long and in what capacity they served in active duty.

Federal level

On April 18, 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Veterans Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act in order for military veterans to receive healthcare in the private sector when the Veterans Affairs Department is unable to assist those veterans in need.

“The veterans have poured out their sweat and blood and tears for this country for so long, and it’s time that they’re recognized, and it’s time that we now take care of them, and take care of them properly,” Trump said after signing the continued health care bill into law in the Roosevelt Room.

Previous to this legislation, President Barack Obama signed the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014–- a bill providing the Department of Veterans Affairs the resources to improve access and quality of care for veterans.

Though there has been an ongoing debate over the exact verbiage President Trump used when discussing this original bill, he takes credit for having been the first to acknowledge the care and assistance needed for this country’s veterans in need. Fact checks clearly show that Obama was the initial proponent of such extensive measures for military personnel and their families. 

COVID-19 has changed the face of how healthcare operations and accessibility are available to veterans. Dr. Kameron Matthews, Deputy under Secretary of Health for Community Care with the Department of Veterans Affairs, provides an update on how providers can assist veterans during COVID-19 on May 19.

State level

It can be very challenging to address access to health care during COVID-19, all Veterans Affairs offices are committed to providing the best care possible while also limiting the risk of exposure and transmission to patients and providers.

“We are very excited to provide our Veterans access to care in ways that don’t detract from their daily lives,” said medical center director, Walt Dannenberg, of the VA Long Beach Healthcare System in an interview with the Orange County Breeze. “Using readily available technology that many of us carry in our pockets is a significant step forward to meeting our mission of providing the best care possible for the men and women that served our Country” 

County level

The OC Veterans Office is located in Santa Ana and actively pursues the rights of veterans and dependents of the United States Armed Forces ensuring they receive Department of Veterans Affairs benefits. 

Santa Ana Veterans Service Office is currently closed to the public, but clients may be seen by appointment only. Santa Ana VA/Courtesy

Walk-in services at the Santa Ana location have been suspended and veterans can be seen by appointment only. On their website, information about COVID-19 and how it may impact physical and mental health is available.

One of the benefits that veterans may need assistance with is housing during the pandemic.

The State of California has awarded almost $20 million to help house military veterans in San Diego and Orange counties who are or at risk of becoming homeless. The program’s funding comes from Proposition 41, passed by California voters in 2014 to provide $600 million for the development of affordable housing for veterans and their families.

“Our military veterans have made significant sacrifices to serve our country and no one should be left behind,” said Senator Bates, a member of the Senate Housing Committee in a statement to Patch. “I am grateful that projects in San Diego and Orange counties will receive additional voter-approved funding to house more veterans who are struggling to keep a roof over their head.

Heroes Landing in Irvine constructed by Jamboree Housing Company houses veterans and their families with onsite facilities to assist them in their transition into the community from active military service. Juan for Jamboree/Courtesy

One such place is Heroes Landing (formerly called Santa Ana Veterans Village)- a three-story, 75-unit housing development that was carefully planned by the Jamboree Housing Company. This Spanish revival-style complex is a solution to the housing problems that many veterans and their families face. Included onsite are employment and training assistance programs where they can move forward with their lives in a healthy, productive manner.

It has become known as a sanctuary of stability and hub of hope, referred to as a safe harbor by the Orange County Register.

Local level

The South Orange County Vet Center has been located in Mission Viejo since 2000 and is dedicated to helping local veterans have access to the benefits available for them through the Department of Veterans Affairs. This includes housing, healthcare and counseling for mental health issues such as Post-traumatic stress disorder.

“What we offer is readjustment counseling to combat veterans and sexual trauma veterans,” said John Embry, outreach coordinator for the SOCVC in an email. “We can also provide assistance with getting enrolled in VA healthcare, getting veterans enrolled in school and helping out with VA claims.”

The office is open for walk-ins from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Fridays, but masks are required and a visitor’s temperature is taken upon entry. VA tele-health counseling sessions are available, as well as phone sessions but the center is also seeing clients on an appointment basis and group sessions are available in the evening.

“We are veterans helping veterans,” Embry said. “If we can’t help the veteran, we will find someone who can.”

Alexander Piechota is a VA work study at SOCVC who attends Saddleback College and plans to transfer to the University of California at Fullerton in Spring 2021. He is majoring in business administration and is a pre-economics student. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 2013 to 2018.

“I heard about this vet center through Saddleback counseling director, Colin Williams, through a ‘Boots to Books’ program from Dillon Bender, a rep from the SOCVC,” Piechota said. “He talked about transitioning and the different benefits available to us. A friend told me about the work study program here and told me to apply.”

As a work study position, he assists the office manager, answers the phone calls, inputs information of the clients into the calendar and helps with filling out applications for benefits.

“Due to the pandemic, some clients have been unable to come in, but right now, we have between 250-500 active clients,” Piechota said. “We get thousands of calls and emails of veterans looking for assistance and having questions about what benefits they may qualify for.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars also work out of the SOCVC location and they help clients with benefits such as housing, filing claims and obtaining healthcare. SOCVC also refers clients to the offices in North Orange County, Santa Ana, San Diego and Long Beach depending on where they reside.

The staff includes 10 work studies, six clinicians, John Embry, the outreach coordinator, and Aaron Hall, the office manager.

The builder of the SOCVC, Robert Key, (1944-2013), built this facility to work directly in conjunction with the Saddleback College Veterans Services purposefully to have a flow between his center and the college.

Saddleback College

Saddleback College Veteran’s Education and Transition Services offers support services to veterans and military personnel in obtaining their educational goals and transitioning into the community.

Because of COVID-19, the Saddleback campus is closed, however remote services are still available.

VETS program coordinator and veterans counselor, Terence Nelson, M.Ed.M.S.,  is in priority registration with his students this week and has a very hectic schedule, but took the time to talk about what Saddleback has to offer to veterans, military personnel and their families.

Terence C. Nelson is the program director for the Saddleback College VETS program. Terence Nelson/Courtesy

“When we first started building this program at Saddleback in 2009 before the Post 9/11 GI Bill was even a law, they did not have priority registration, so our team lobbied to the state government to put priority registration for vets into law,” Nelson said. “We have been a large part of policy change with the VA and legislation for the state- Saddleback has been at the forefront for change for many years.”

Saddleback is one of 10 campuses in the state that offer faculty counselors to provide personal, career and academic planning for student veterans, as well as a vocational rehabilitation counselor from the VA on the team. 

COVID-19 has affected VETS services in minimal ways in student support services, however the social activities such as comradery-building and networking events have been halted.

“We used to have barbecues in the quad for 80 plus students and faculty to build bridges and connections within the community,” Nelson said. “It’s harder to do so in an all online environment. Student veteran ‘town halls’ are offered twice a week via Zoom for an open-office setting where students can pop in with their questions, hear the latest on services and policy changes in their world and basically connect with each other.” 

Approximately 1,500 student veterans are being served at Saddleback which is the largest veteran-serving institution in Orange county.

“There is good reason to celebrate the building of a new veterans center on the Saddleback campus which is under construction at the moment,” Nelson said. “It will be about three times the size of the current center.” 

A Mission Viejo press release announces that a virtual Veterans Day celebration will take place on Nov. 11. One of the guest speakers will be former combat veteran and green beret, Orlando Ambriz, a former Saddleback student who transferred to University of Southern California this fall.