FEATURE — It’s a long way from the cactus flats of the Arizona Strip to the bottom of a foxhole in Korea, but that’s where Darrel Gubler found himself face-first in May of 1951.
Just moments earlier, Gubler was awakened from a deep sleep by what he could only describe as a premonition, and he sprinted for the protection of a nearby foxhole as a Chinese mortar round exploded 2 feet from where his head rested just moments prior. Two 55-gallon drums of gasoline for his Sherman tank which were mere feet from his head miraculously survived the blast and rolled away relatively unscathed from the explosion. To this day, Darrel is unable to find the words to explain why he found himself sprinting from his cot and diving into the foxhole.
Fast forward to 2018, Gubler is 87 years old. A son is looking for a little help for his elderly parents who needed more help at home than the family could provide. Everyone involved had the same “let’s keep them at home” goal. Gubler’s son finds the local Five County Association of Governments Area Agency on Aging in St. George. Gubler and family meet at home with a veteran service officer to work together on Veteran Affairs applications.
The service officer’s interview reveals an in-service experience with a close-range muzzle blast damaged Gubler’s ears, ultimately affecting his hearing for good. A service-connected compensation claim allows him a little financial support to get the help he needs. Through the assistance of the veteran service officer, he was also linked in VA Health Care for badly needed hearing aids.
In the American tumult of the past few years, an unlikely but successful alliance formed, with the beneficiaries being the aging and most vulnerable veterans in our communities.
As a result of a collaboration between the Utah Department of Veteran and Military Affairs and the Five County Area Agency on Aging, veterans who served in the armed forces but now have limited capabilities can get no-cost, in-home appointments like the one Gubler had from a veteran service officer for guidance with VA information and applications.
The VA is the second-largest agency within the federal government, providing benefits that include disability compensation, pension, education and training, health care home loans, insurance, vocational rehabilitation and employment and burial. Besides the VA, the Five County AOG acts as one of the strongest advocates for veterans in Southern Utah.
Veterans with a median age of 62, and the estimated 5.6 million living in rural areas, have a much more difficult time accessing the multitude of federal health and military benefit options. Older veterans may not have access to transportation, and due to the rural nature of their homes, trips to facilities often become problematic.
Health challenges may be intensified by battle-related injuries or illnesses associated with serving in the armed forces. Plus, rural areas simply have fewer physicians, hospitals and clinics and minimal health-delivery services.
While there are other area veteran service officers with the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, what makes the Veterans Service Office at the Area Agency on Aging unique is that social workers can travel to the homes of the veterans who live in more rural and remote areas or who are homebound.
Another veteran helped by the Five County Area Agency on Aging was Val E. Thompson.
Thompson and his wife attended an annual senior citizens rural health fair and met Five County staff. Thompson was identified as a veteran with no connections to VA support since his 1945 discharge. Because Thompson was 93 years old, his wife was actively looking for assistance for caregivers.
The Veterans Service Office met with Val and Ann in their Minersville home. A well-documented military scrapbook indicated an extraordinary service given to his country by an unassuming gentleman quietly observing from his armchair. His service laid a framework for a VA claim. Not only is he now receiving assistance with in-home care, a ramp for their home and access to the VA Health Care programs, he is now recognized for the sacrifice he made for his country.
Aid and Attendance is a federal program paid by the VA to veterans, veteran spouses or surviving spouses for applicants who need financial help for in-home care. It is paid in addition to a veteran’s basic monthly pension. The benefit may not be paid without eligibility to a VA basic pension. It is a non-service connected disability benefit, meaning the disability does not have to be a result of service.
The Area Agency on Aging has social workers currently in place to assist and link veterans with these types of services and programs that are available to them through the VA and local community partners. Social workers with the Area Agency on Aging can provide ongoing and continued case management for veterans, including Korean veterans, within Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties.
The flexibility of the Area Agency on Aging bridges the gap between veterans and the VA by traveling to the homes of veterans in Southern Utah’s rural areas.
Reaching out to local representatives with ties and mutual friends in the community is easier than reaching out to distant authorities. The Area Agency on Aging understands the challenges of reaching and serving rural vets, from differences in backgrounds and cultures, to providing benefits through established local community partnerships. These services build lasting relationships between community members, Five County and the VA.
Until 2017, the program which operated through the Area Agency on Aging at Five County was called Cover to Cover. This model used the expertise of benefits counselors at community agencies such as Aging and Disability Resource centers, area agencies on aging, and centers for independent living to help older veterans access available resources from VA and community agencies.
The fiscal year 2017 annual report of Cover to Cover states 252 unique veterans were served, of whom 50 percent were not connected to the VA for benefits prior to the help provided by Five County’s Area Agency on Agency social workers. The data showed the following:
- 51 percent of veterans, their caregivers or widows were assisted with applications.
- 20 percent of surviving spouses were served through screening processes.
- 79 percent of veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam were connected to services with the VA and local community partners.
The program was operated by several area agencies on aging and independent living centers throughout Utah until September 2017 when funding provided through the Veterans Health Administration Office of Rural Health was cut.
In January 2018, the Five County Area Agency on Aging was able to continue to help serve veterans on a much more limited basis as part of a Benefit Enrollment Center grant received from the National Council on Aging. In July 2018 the agency received limited, one-time funding from the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs to continue providing some support to veterans. However, both funding sources will be ending June 30, 2019.
From January through September of 2018, the Area Agency on Aging – Five County AOG has been able to serve 107 veterans with the one-time funding. In addition, Five County has trained social workers to screen and assist veterans or their caregivers with a variety of other community services and supports, including home and community-based long-term services.
Without critical funding, deserving veterans like Gubler and Thompson will fall through the cracks. If this program seems a valuable resource to the Southern Utah community of Veterans, Five County AOG officials ask that you contact your local officials to express your opinion.
For more information on the Five County Area Agency on Aging, please call 435-673-3548.
Written by ALESSANDRA TOSCANELLI, Five County AOG media and public relations.