It’s been four years since retired Army Col. Howard Guy filed his claim for military benefits with the help of Hillsborough County’s Veterans Affairs department.
A Vietnam War veteran who suffers from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, Guy said he expects a decision in January.
There’s been some twists and turns in the process, but Guy said he’s been able to count on the county’s department to keep him abreast of his claims progress.
“I probably would not have made it this far,” he said. “It’s been a big help.”
Formally known as the Department of Consumer and Veterans Affairs, retired Marine Corps first sergeant Frank Strom directs the department.
Hillsborough County boasts the state’s second-largest population of veterans, with an estimated 93,000 living in the area.
Strom, who served in the military from 1984 to 2004, said he and his small staff of 10 do their best to help veterans like Guy obtain their benefits and pension compensation and get access to healthcare, among other services.
“We advocate for veterans,” he said. “We’re there for everything from A to Z.”
That includes informing veterans about their rights and entitlements. Many are not aware of the services available or the programs for which they qualify, he said.
“The key is education,” he said. “We educate them on how to facilitate that system.”
Strom said it’s not just veterans who engage with his department – other members of the military community, including Gold Star mothers and spouses also visit the office seeking assistance or taking part in events.
“This is one job where when you go home at night, you know you’ve truly changed people’s lives,” he said.
Roping in younger veterans, however, has proved to be a challenge, Strom said.
Upon returning home, many younger veterans are likely to try to make up for lost time — so that means a focus on birthday parties and family events rather than getting involved with veteran-related affairs and organizations, he said.
“Their priority is to take care of their families,” he said. “Not that (veteran groups) are not important, but there is a gap.”
One place that could bridge that gap is the new Veterans Resource Center planned at Veterans Memorial Park. The 8,000 square foot office space and a multi-purpose area will house Consumer and Veterans Services Department
When complete, it will serve as a space where veterans groups can hold meetings and social events, Strom said.
The project is funded by $300,000 from Hillsborough County and a $1.5 million grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
It will serve as a hub for county veterans and the extended military community, much like the current museum and park already does, said Stephanie Shriver, the general manager.
“They come here and they find peace,” she said. “They’ll talk and reflect while sitting on the benches.”
ANNUAL VETERANS DAY TRIBUTE SET
Hillsborough County Consumer & Veterans Services and the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County will host the county’s 52nd Annual Veterans Day Tribute on Friday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. The event will take place at Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, 3602 U.S. Highway 301 N. in Tampa.
For more information call (813) 246-3170 or (813) 744-5349, or go to HCFLGov.net/Veterans.