By Tom Konecny
Veterans have garnered mixed reactions over the years, but things are changing.
Lee Armstrong, knows firsthand that our military personnel often deserve better. In 1975 he had been serving in the U.S. Navy for a year and returned home to Toledo for a brief visit. He stopped by the then crowded Southwyck Mall – while in uniform – and he was confronted by anti-Vietnam War sentiment.
“Some kids about my age called me a baby killer, and then spat on me,” Armstrong said.
“A nearby Toledo police sergeant, also a former marine apologized and thanked me for my service,” Armstrong said. “There was a lot of mistrust in the federal government and in the military then, and some of (the soldiers) were not welcome back. But, it’s better now.”
Since 2009, Armstrong has served as executive director of the Lucas County Veterans Service Commission (LCVSC). He understands the challenges veterans face, having served in the Navy from 1974-1996.
LCVSC, founded in the late 1880s, today offers two primary functions for current military and honorably discharged veterans: The Commission provides emergency financial assistance to veterans in need; and it offers support assistance, usually with the filing of claims for government benefits.
Ohio is the only state with a VSC in every county
“We’re trying to do a handup, not a handout,” Armstrong said, paraphrasing Toledoan Ken Leslie, founder of Veterans Matter, an organization which helps homeless veterans. “We’re helping them grow as veterans and most of all, giving them a helping hand when they need it.”
According to rough census estimates, there are 30,000 veterans in Lucas County, but there are likely additional veterans missing from that count either due to homelessness, or because they don’t identify themselves as veterans.
Any interested veteran needing services who was honorably discharged, or generally discharged under honorable conditions, with at least one day of active duty after training is eligible.
The only other requirement to receive assistance is that the individual must be a county resident for 90 days. So, if a veteran was a homeless transient, that stipulation used to put LSVSC in a bind. That’s when Armstrong teamed up with Ken Leslie and Shawn Dowling, coordinator of VA Healthcare for Homeless Veterans, and Veterans Matter was born.
Homeless veterans nationwide qualify for voucher-assisted living provided by the U.S. government. However, they often lack the initial rental deposits necessary to secure housing. “Prior to Veterans Matter, in Lucas County it took us 137 days arrnge a housing lease for the veteran” said Dowling. “Today it takes us an average of 34 days. Having quick and easy access to deposits allows us to secure these funds in approximately 10 minutes. Without Veterans Matter, we would take veterans around to different organizations, to fill out applications, which can take several weeks.”
LCVSC also assists by filing claims for veterans and helping widows with VA pensions. Services offered are state- and nationally-certified, which allows them to access to the VA and to file appeals when denials occur.
“When I started here six years ago, we had $36 million coming back to Lucas County from individual claims, but now we’re expecting that number to be up to $52 million for 2016,” Armstrong said. “It’s because three service officers do nonstop filing for claims for Lucas County.”
LCVSC’s services have been streamlined, thanks to a new office location which consolidates veterans’ needs into one location, moving from downtown Toledo to 2595 Arlington Avenue in South Toledo as the new location is more centralized.”
During Armstrong’s tenure, LCVSC also started: food deliveries, valued between $10,000-$20,000 a month to widows and homebound veterans, offering transportation and a new veterans ID card program that identifies vets to restaurants and stores offering discounts.
Veterans Matter’s Ken Leslie attributes LCVSC’s success to its many services and its people.
“The actual commissioners of the (LCVSC) are bright and insightful, and actually looking for things to do to help the veterans,” Leslie said. “They hired Lee Armstrong and Jason Brown, who together have done extraordinary work delivering results. Tens of thousands have been helped since the creation of the commission. or knowI think that the (LCVSC) is one of Toledo’s best kept secrets of compassion in helping veterans. Credit also has to go to the Lucas County Commissioners, who are behind (LCVSC) and veterans 100 percent.”
Veterans must still meet financial assistance guidelines for emergency need – a family of four must not exceed $47,700 per year in income – and although LCVSC’s mission is to serve veterans in appreciation for their sacrifice to protect America, there are still some LCVSC naysayers.
“It is tough,” Armstrong said. “Some people say, ‘Did they do something (to deserve this)?’ and I say, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, they did do something.’ I don’t get confrontational, but I don’t back down. I show them facts. We’re taking care of the veterans in our community.”
Are you or do you know a Veteran who needs assistance? Lucas County Veterans Services 419-213-6090 | 2595 Arlington Ave., Toledo, 43614 co.lucas.oh.us Veterans Matter 567-698-7838 | veteransmatter.org