By Mike DePietro
For veterans living in rural areas of Niagara County, accessing services can often be extremely difficult, if not impossible. While cities are generally more equipped to handle a veteran’s needs, many rural vets, particularly those with disabilities, are unable to reach these areas to get the help they require.
This month, a number of local organizations are hoping to change that.
On Tuesday, June 18, the Town of Porter, the New York State Division of Veterans Services, WNY Heroes Inc., and the Niagara County Veterans’ Service agency are holding a veterans outreach aimed at connecting former service members with the benefits and services they need. While the event is open to all veterans, the goal was to specifically create an event that would be convenient for veterans residing in rural areas.
Veterans who attend the outreach can speak directly with representatives who can answer questions regarding compensation, military pension and education, as well get help accessing benefits available through New York state and Niagara County.
Numerous businesses and agencies, including the Buffalo VA Medical Center, have stepped forward to provide eye exams, health screenings and to help veterans’ dependents in attaining health insurance. Additionally, ClearCaptions will help connect those with hearing disabilities via special phones outfitted with call-caption technology.
Other participating agencies include the New York Department of Labor and the Buffalo Vet Center, the Veterans One-stop Center of WNY, with others soon to be announced.
For added convenience, the Town of Porter community shuttle is available to help transport veterans to and from the outreach location and can be reserved by calling 745-7721.
Arthur Lawson, mayor of the Village of Wilson, who is also a veteran’s benefit adviser at the state VA, spearheaded the outreach. Lawson has worked closely with Town of Porter Supervisor John “Duffy” Johnston to facilitate the event. According to Lawson, the outreach was a long time coming.
“This has been a long-overlooked item; to get help to these veterans in rural areas,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 17,136 veterans living in Niagara County. Of those, 12,777 are not receiving VA benefits. In contrast, Lawson noted, the amount of available service officers in the area is noticeably low – particularly in rural areas.
“In an area like Erie County, they can have easily 30-40 service officers. … As far as I can tell, Niagara County only has three.”
Johnston recognized the need all too well and said he is optimistic the outreach can make a dramatic impact.
“I’ve talked to veterans who say, ‘We’ll try to do something,’ and (the organizations) just give you another number to call. … This way, hopefully, it’s a one-stop shop.”
For both men, military service and personnel hold a special regard. Johnston’s father was a former serviceman while his daughter currently serves in the U.S. Army. Lawson is a retired infantry officer who was injured in 2004.
As to what comes next, both Lawson and Johnston seemed optimistic.
“We don’t want this to be a one-time thing.” Johnston said. “We’re hoping that this is successful and we can keep it going.”
For now, both are just thrilled to see that outreach has come to fruition.
“I’ve had lots of ups and downs in my career, but this is definitely one of those ups that’s going to hold on for awhile,” Johnston said.
The event is scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Town of Porter Town Hall, located at 3265 Creek Road in Youngstown. SGM Gary Darnell, Niagara County Clerk Joseph Jastrzemski and Johnston will serve as speakers for the event.
For more information, call 716-745-3730.