Mendal Kemp on veterans service office
Mendal Kemp was recently hired by the Madison County Board of Supervisors as veterans service officer. Kemp, a Vietnam veteran, has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi and a master’s degree in healthcare administration from Mississippi College. Kemp spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about his position and challenges veterans face in receiving benefits.
Tell me about your position. What do veterans service officers do?
“There’s one in every county, and they are employed by the board of supervisors. There is a state statute that allows the position, maybe requires it, to help veterans receive their benefits. There are lots of forms and procedures (veterans) have to follow to file claims for disability, pensions, any kind of benefit. The county veterans service officers assist veterans in navigating the system. (We’re) someone local who can help. We can’t always solve their problems, but we (can get them in touch) with someone who can.”
So this is not a federal position?
“No; it’s county government. The Madison County board of supervisors hired me.”
How many veterans are there in Madison County?
“(There were) 5,575 at last count. That number has been decreasing every year. The World War II and Korean vets are dying out. Now, it’s the Vietnam vets that I’m dealing with mostly. There are also a large number of Gulf War veterans. (That group includes) anyone who served in the Gulf, Afghanistan or Iraq from 1990 until the present.”
In a typical week how many calls do you get for assistance?
“It’s really picking up. This is the third month that I’ve worked. I’m here every Monday and Tuesday and (on average) four veterans come to the office each day, and there are four, five or six calls a day. A lot of younger veterans fill out claims forms online, and sometimes (will call if they) have a question or want to check the status of something, and I can (help them with) that.”
So is this a full-time or part-time position?
“Part-time. I work Monday and Tuesday and can take calls at home or come in (on my days off.) I retired in October, but I felt I needed to keep working. This became available, so I looked into it and applied. I like to work.”
Before you spoke to the Walter Scott Coffee Club recently, I had never heard of the position of veterans service office. How did you find out about the position?
“I became aware of it from other veterans talking about it. I was appointed to the state Veterans Affairs Board, which oversees four state veterans nursing homes, the claims division and two state cemeteries. I became aware that there were a lot of veterans who were confused about how to get their benefits, and in my Vietnam unit, I had friends that would call and ask me ‘how do I do this?’ ”
What are the biggest challenges facing veterans right now, in terms of getting benefits?
“Some veterans are struggling. Twenty-five percent of the homeless population is (made up of) veterans. That group is totally unaware of what help they can receive. Others (don’t) know if they’re eligible.
“Others don’t keep up with their discharge papers. You have to have those, because they tell about your service time and whether you’ve been honorably discharged. If you’re dishonorably discharged, you’re not entitled to any benefit. Many calls are from people wanting to locate their DD214s (discharge papers).
To get them, you have to fill out another form to request the information and it can take up to 30 days for it to be filled.
“The system is so complex and cumbersome and that’s the biggest challenge. There is a lot of wait time and forms to fill out, and if you fill out the wrong form or fill it out incorrectly, it will throw you (off for months.) If you have assistance on the front end, it saves a lot of frustration.”
What changes need to be made, if any, to make the system run more smoothly?
“It’s a very cumbersome process, but the more I get into it, I realize the forms are necessary. You have to show you are a veteran and that you really have a disability and a need for a (benefit). The criteria for accessing these benefits is set in statute. I think everyone’s trying to improve the system.”
What qualifications do you have to have to be a veterans service officer?
“You have to be a veteran and you have to complete an annual training course. That’s provided two times a year, once in Jackson and once in Biloxi. Basically, it’s just training you on what the law is and all the benefits that are codified in the law. The training acquaints you with that and how to help veterans access them.”
Before you took this position were there any benefits you were not aware of?
“I wasn’t aware that the government can provide transportation to and from the VA (Veterans Affairs) hospital. I also wasn’t aware that Congress passed a law that allows veterans to go to a hospital outside of the VA network and the VA will pay for it, as long as the hospital has it approved within 72 hours (after) the visit. There’s another program, the Veteran’s Choice Program, which will allow veterans to see a specialist and go to a private doctor rather than to a VA hospital or clinic, as long as the VA approves it.”
Are more people opting to go to private physicians now, rather than the VA?
The VA has come under scrutiny in recent years, and was in the news recently when President Trump fired the VA secretary for not supporting privatizing the system. What are your thoughts on privatizing the system?
“There are a lot of things that would have to be sorted out to get to that point, and we’re not able to do that right now. It would (probably) be doing away with our federal facilities, which do a great service, not only in acute care, but with the outpatient services available.”