by Meg Massey
for the Orcas Community Resource Center
Often we wait until November’s Veterans Day to commend the work and sacrifice of the men and women who have served in our country’s armed forces. But on May 19, here on Orcas we had an earlier opportunity to honor local vets. That Saturday morning a dozen experts, with deep knowledge of benefit options for veterans, opened the Orcas Public School library to a group of twenty waiting vets. During hour-long and longer discussions, these skillful volunteers from the Whatcom County-based Veteran Navigator Program furnished well-informed advice to vets on benefits designated for their needs.
Invited to Orcas by the folks at the Orcas Community Resource Center, the Navigators, in one-on-one consultations, guided veterans through the maze of policies that describe veteran benefits in order to determine the assistance best suited to each veteran’s circumstances. Together, veterans and Navigators filed disability claims or petitioned for medical coverage and poverty pensions. Some submitted appeals for job training or funds for care at home. By 5:30, the Navigators had met individually for in-depth, confidential conversations with more than fifty San Juan County veterans. For the handful of vets who arrived too late in the day for full-length exchanges, Navigators will follow up first, with phone calls and later, as needed, in face-to-face meetings. Reflecting, at the end of the day, Navigators cited the high veteran turnout on Orcas as likely evidence of even greater numbers of San Juan vets with difficulty accessing their benefits.
The wellspring of compassion that characterizes the Navigator team is Doris Kent, who created and leads the Veteran Navigator Program in remembrance of her son, U.S. Army Specialist Jonathan Santos. An Arabic language linguist, Santos died in Iraq when his vehicle hit a roadside explosive in 2004. One of Kent’s fellow Navigators, referring to their advocacy on behalf of vets, said, “We do it for Jonathan.”
As a long-time volunteer with Vietnam Veterans of America, Kent helps vets apply for disability support. At the Whatcom County Opportunity Council she works with veterans and surviving spouses to obtain housing. Passing along the lessons of these experiences and her own advanced training, Kent continues to coach new volunteers. And the Navigator team presses on, helping vets cut through complex regulations to reach the benefits they’ve earned.
The Navigators send thanks to the superstars at the Orcas Public School and the Orcas Island Community Foundation for top-notch help, to Mijitas for delicious dinners, to Island Skillet for hearty breakfasts and to Island Market, Orcas Food Coop and to Roses for outstanding lunches. The lodging and welcome at Smuggler’s Village and the Coho Cottages received rave reviews from Navigators, as did the accommodations kindly provided by local veterans. Finally, grateful recognition goes to the generous Orcas family who contributed ferry tickets to bring the Navigators here.