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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Help Available to CMCo Veterans

Al Rodesky

By Bill Barlow

RIO GRANDE – Things do sometimes get better. For Al Rodesky, a recent example is the opening of an expanded U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clinic in Rio Grande.  
The Community Based Outpatient Clinic, in the former Kmart shopping center, is far larger than the former clinic site, at U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, and easier to access. 
“I’m retired military. I had no problem getting onto the Coast Guard base, but others didn’t have access unless they have an appointment,” he said. If there was an alert or other emergency, no one was getting on base, he said. 
The new clinic is centrally located and closer to public transportation. There are also other services in the same area, part of a project called County Commons that combines the federal clinic, the offices for county services, and private businesses on a site that stood close to vacant for years. 
Rodesky is a disabled veteran. He helps other veterans at the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 44, on Bayshore Road, in Del Haven. Rodesky spent 27 years in the Army, serving as an airborne ranger. He saw three tours in Vietnam and served in Desert Storm.  
He grew up in the South, was born in Alabama, and spent most of his life, when not deployed, in Florida and Georgia, so how did he end up in Cape May County? 
“I married a Jersey girl, so that was pre-ordained,” he said. Plus, his son, who is also retired military, lives in southern New Jersey. 
Now 75, Rodesky said having the clinic near his home and offering additional services has made a big difference, and he has other options, as well. 
“If I need services that aren’t readily available, I can go to a civilian doctor,” he said. For instance, he had an ear infection recently.  
“Instead of running to Wilmington or Philadelphia, they set me up with a doctor in Court House,” he said, adding things are working better. 
“Some people you’re not going to please no matter what you do,” he said. 
Services Needed
The VA cannot help with everything. Even for those things that are covered, there may be a delay between signing up and getting in the system. That’s where the Citizens/Veterans Advisory Committee comes in. 
Johnnie Walker is the state adjutant with the DAV, who helped launch the committee. 
“We would get a lot of requests from veterans who weren’t covered by the VA,” he said. 
Sometimes it was catching up on utility bills for the month or finding a place to live. In one instance, a Wildwood shop owner reached out about an employee who was going to be homeless starting the day after Christmas. 
“We went to work. That’s when I first got involved with social media,” Walker said. 
That was also the seed of the Citizens/Veterans Advisory Committee, he said. 
“That’s how we started. We helped this guy. We got him into housing,” he said. “We’ve been helping veterans ever since.” 
Today, about 40 volunteers work with the committee to help local veterans on a variety of issues, with the help of numerous community partners.  
Walker praised local businesses for providing supplies and support for projects, and cited service groups through the area, including the Cape May and Greater Wildwood Elks Lodges. 
A big boost came from making the connection with the Archdiocese of Camden’s Catholic Social Services, providing access to far greater resources, Walker said. 
The organization includes veterans and those who never served, with members  on the boards of directors of other local organizations or those for whom this is their only project. Some volunteer to run errands or pick up groceries for veterans, small things that can make a big difference. 
“I can’t say enough good about them,” Walker said. 
Tough Issues
As summer visitors pack the shore resorts for Memorial Day weekend, many will look forward to a better tourism season than 2020 or enjoy a chance to hit the beach. Veterans and residents will also take time to remember those killed fighting America’s wars, gathering in person after many events were held remotely last year. 
Many speakers will also honor those who survived the fight but bore the scars inside and out. 
Walker cited the number 22, which is from an estimate of how many American veterans take their own lives each day, from a 2012 report from the VA. The number became a rallying cry for veteran advocates.  
Since then, later studies changed that number, but the fact remains that veterans and those currently serving in the military are more likely to die by their hand than the civilian population. 
Multiple studies indicate veterans face rates of unemployment and homelessness higher than the national average, but help is available. 
The volunteers with the Citizens/Veterans Advisory Committee can help veterans navigate the system and understand what programs can assist with housing, medical needs, and other issues, Walker said. Sometimes, the assistance is more direct. 
This spring, local vets and other volunteers helped acquire and install a wheelchair ramp at a veteran’s home. 
The local DAV organization also has three vans to help transport veterans to medical appointments and treatments. 
Walker also praised the VA leadership and county government for the new center. With the county Social Services offices on the same site, it’s possible to get a lot done in a single visit. 
“It’s a blessing having it here in Cape May County,” Walker said. 
“Here, in Cape May County, we have a whole host of people who want to help,” said David Louderback, acting director, Division of Veterans Services, Cape May County.  
Programs to help veterans with education and multiple other options are available, he said, and the division is there to help navigate the applications, whether in person or over the phone. 
“Any time a veteran or a spouse comes by with an issue, we try to handle it,” he said. “If we can’t handle it, then we find out who can.” 
The Division of Veterans Services can be found next door to the VA clinic, in Rio Grande, or call 609-886-2762.  
Covid Woes 
The new clinic opened with little fanfare in December. Because of the pandemic, there would be no crowds welcoming the new facility.  
After years of effort, it was not the grand event anyone wanted, said Jacqueline Hinker, a veteran community outreach specialist with the VA. 
However, while Covid hit hard – Walker said the virus was especially devastating to the veterans of World War II – it also meant a rush of new enrollments from veterans seeking a faster track toward vaccination while appointments were still tough to get. 
“It’s been something I don’t think any of us could have predicted,” said Hinker. Once they were signed up, she said, most wondered why they did not do so much earlier.  
“It’s a very interesting time,” she added. 
The new clinic has space to offer far more services than the one in Cape May. The same services are available, including behavioral health services and primary care, with the addition of optometry, and physical therapy is on the way. 
“The beautiful clinic, in Rio Grande, could essentially swallow the old one,” Hinker said. 
Many veterans are reluctant to sign up for VA services, she said. Some may have their own health insurance and do not want to take services from other veterans who may need them more, but that’s not how the system works, she said.   
“The services go where the numbers are. The more veterans that utilize it, the more services will come into an area,” she said.  
In other words, signing up may improve what is available for other veterans in the county. Hinker added that having insurance is not a factor. 
“We are a health care system, not an insurance agency,” she said. “It’s an ‘and-both.’ It’s not an ‘either-or.’” 
Hinker and other outreach specialists meet with local veterans’ organizations, holding town halls, and attend events, trying to be where veterans are. The pandemic curbed some of that. 
“We had been a bit on standdown during Covid,” she said. “Now, we’re back to community events.” 
There is a great deal of information at VA.gov, where there is a search function, and on mobile apps that can help veterans refill prescriptions and send secure messages to doctors. 
“We’re really trying to make sure veterans have everything available to them at their fingertips,” she said, but some veterans are uncomfortable in the digital format. They can call her, at 302-304-5509, or stop by the clinic, at 3801 Route 9 South, in Rio Grande, where staff can help with the needed forms. 
Signing up may be far less cumbersome than many expect, she said. 
The question of eligibility can be more complicated. Hinker said it is a question of when and where a veteran served. Some veterans may also be eligible based on income. 
“There’s a lot to it,” she said, suggesting those interested visit the Rio Grande site for more details.  
The Citizens/Veterans Advisory Committee can be found on Facebook or call 609-425-8608. 
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com. 

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