RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All this week, we've been telling stories about veterans in this country and how getting the benefits they've earned can be a hit-or-miss proposition. It's part of our project Back at Base, which is a collaboration between NPR and local stations.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As it turns out, where a vet lives matters when it comes to getting benefits. And vets who live in remote areas, on average, get fewer benefits than others. Patricia Murphy from member station KUOW in Seattle visited one of the most remote spots in Washington state.
PATRICIA MURPHY, BYLINE: For veterans in San Juan County, VA healthcare almost always begins with an hour-long ferry ride.
(SOUNDBITE OF FERRY ANNOUNCEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: May I have your attention please. We will now be boarding all walk-on passengers for our scheduled 1:55 departure bound for Anacortes, Bainbridge...
MURPHY: Even routine blood work requires a three-hour trip one way. Friday Harbor is one of four island stops for this ferry and the only incorporated city in this remote county northwest of Seattle. Travel to the west side of the island, and your cell phone pings you that you're in Canada, even though you're not. Just a short walk from the ferry terminal is American Legion Post 163, were veteran service officer Peter DeLorenzi has his office.
PETER DELORENZI: It's a really convenient place to me.
MURPHY: DeLorenzi is the only VSO who serves this chain of islands in Puget Sound.
DELORENZI: I get veterans from Orcas and Lopez and besides San Juan Island. If a veteran is invalid or anything, I will go out to the house.
MURPHY: According to the VA, there are more than 1,700 veterans in San Juan County - about 1 for every 10 residents here. But many are not taking advantage of the VA benefits they've earned. VA spending here is just under $2,500 per veteran - the lowest in the state. DeLorenzi volunteers his time to help bring those numbers up. But it's not easy.
Some of the 60 or so vets a year he works with become frustrated with the process and just drop out. Even DeLorenzi gave up on applying for a VA mortgage after he was turned down on a loan for a manufactured home.
DELORENZI: Doesn't qualify - all those programs you see that they advertise, oh, this is new homes for vets and stuff like that. Well, manufactured homes are just about the only thing that most of us can afford.
MURPHY: The VA does sometimes provide loans like that, but it's complicated. Then there are the big VA benefits - health care and disability. Many of the islands vets are older. Diabetes is a problem. So is hearing loss. DeLorenzi says since some vets can be self-reliant to a fault, a little VA outreach would make a big difference.
DELORENZI: A lot of us are a little proud to seek help, and we think we can do it ourselves. Sometimes that's OK, and then sometimes we need a little help.
MURPHY: But even vets who may want help, including some who struggle with PTSD, can't get VA counseling here. A contract position for a counselor to serve the county has gone unfilled for five years, so a lot of the responsibility for reaching out to veterans who could benefit from counseling falls to a tight-knit community of local vets.
SHANNON PLUMMER: You just hear things. You hear people talking.
MURPHY: That's Shannon Plummer, the American Legion post commander.
PLUMMER: You hear that, you know, hey, I - you know, I've got a friend of mine that was in Vietnam. And he's now wanting to talk. Would you be willing to have a talk with him? We jump right to it.
MURPHY: There is a vet center on the mainland charged with providing counseling for the county. But efforts to build a better relationship have been frustrating. Plummer says last May, the county invited the rep from the Bellingham Vet Center to come visit the island.
PLUMMER: We've tried to contact the individual several times without any response. I don't know why he doesn't make himself available.
MURPHY: The Vet Center says there's always room for improvement and that it's hoping to have a counselor to serve the county sometime this year. Plummer remains puzzled by the lack of contact. He says the Vet Center needs to put in the time and build trust if it wants to help the island's vets.
PLUMMER: What you could be doing is a big time of PR relations. Unless you get out, then you don't know what you have out here.
MURPHY: What you have are hard-to-reach vets missing out on their benefits. And until recently, the burden to sign up was mostly on them. Now, last November, for the first time, two VA employees did drive a camper-sized mobile vet center 137 miles from Tacoma to this island. The visit was part of a national effort to provide outreach to rural communities. Word got around. About 20 vets showed up. Some were lined up when the doors opened. Most inquired about benefits, but none were willing to speak with the onboard counselor. Building that kind of trust takes time. For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.