Breckenridge Texan

Smith gives back by helping local veterans with their benefits claims

Smith gives back by helping local veterans with their benefits claims
December 02
09:30 2020

By Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan

For Don Smith, serving as the Stephens County Veterans Service Officer is more than just a job, it’s his way of giving back to fellow veterans.

Smith, who is originally from Indiana, served in the U. S. Navy from 1970 to 1974, including service in Vietnam aboard the USS Kawishiwi, a Navy supertanker. He took over the local VSO job about two years ago after Ken Mosley, who had held the job for many years, retired. He said they were looking for somebody who really wanted to do the job and he really wanted to help local veterans out, so he took the job.

Smith said he was inspired to help fellow vets by his former shipmate, veteran Russell Carpenter, who passed away in 2019. Carpenter, who was also Smith’s best friend, started a program called Sonora Vets Helping Vets in Sonora, California.

“He had this program, I mean he had a big program,” Smith said. “He had a (thrift) store. He had everything. He had a place where veterans could come into and play music, shoot pool, and all this – he was a highly respected man. And he talked me into going to the VA to get help, and it took a lot. I finally went in, and he basically saved my life. And that’s why I decided to do this, because I’m paying it forward and this is where I’m sitting right now.”

Special VA training and accreditation

Smith, who works out of a small home office behind his home in Breckenridge, went through almost a year of training to be able to access VA resources and veterans’ files on his office computer in order to help local veterans get signed up for services and benefits without having to travel out of town.

Before his training and certification, Smith said, he was only able to provide information to veterans on VA services and provide them with the forms to fill out. Then, they would have to either mail the forms to the VA or bring them back to Smith to get them faxed. Then, if the veteran wanted to know anything about the status of their claim or where their claim was in the VA system, they would have to go to Abilene and see an accredited VSO to see what was going on with their claim. “I could not do that. I had no way of knowing how to do that because I wasn’t accredited at that time,” he said.

“With the accreditation that I have now, when they have filed a claim and, let’s say six months down the road, they have not heard anything on their claim, they can come to me or to an accredited VSO, and then that person can look at their VA file to find out exactly where their claim is at,” Smith continued.

However, Smith said, if a veteran has an attorney involved with handling their claim, he would have to have permission from their attorney before he is allowed to access their claim information.

How to contact Smith

Smith said if someone needs to contact him, they can call him at his office phone at 254-559-7021,  and if he’s not in his office the call will roll-over to his cell phone. If he’s not available, they can leave a voice mail and he will call them back.

“I’m open 24/7; I don’t keep specific hours,” Smith said. “With me being a veteran, I know what it’s like, you know, waiting around having to wait for everything, and I don’t like to wait. And we were waiting all the time when we were in a service. I hate it. So I stay open 24/7, so if anybody needs me, I’m always here. I’m just a phone call away, that’s how I am.”

The first time a veteran meets with Smith, they don’t need to bring anything with them, he said. They just need to tell him what they need, and he’ll pull up all proper forms that they need to file a claim. Smith will answer all their questions and explain what steps they need to take next.

“I give it (forms) to them and say, ‘Go home and take your time to fill all this out. There’s no rush on it,’” he said. “I tell them just sit and think about what you want to put down on the paper. Then, they can either mail it out, or if they have a computer, or a fax machine, they can fax it out themselves.  If they don’t, they can come back to my office, and I can go ahead and fax it for them. It will save them time and a stamp.”

After their claim is filed, Smith can use his computer to check the status of their claim and where it’s at in the system. If a veteran has access to a computer and the Internet at home, he said they can also use the VA’s benefit website at www.ebenefits.va.gov to check on their claims. If they don’t have a computer or Internet access at home, they can use one of the computers at the library to access their information on the website or contact Smith.

“Once they sign up on that, they can get in there and check to see what the progress is on that system,” Smith said. “It does not tell them exactly what is going on, but it will show they received their paperwork.”

Cutline, top photo: Stephens County Veterans Service Officer Don Smith in his home office where he meets with local veterans to help them with their VA benefit claims.  Smith served in the U. S. Navy from 1970 to 1974, including service in Vietnam aboard the USS Kawishiwi, a Navy supertanker. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)


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