Veterans in east Jefferson County have a new resource for filing benefit claims with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, staffed by a man who’s already had to navigate the system for his own needs.
Paul Cahill of Port Townsend has been certified as a service officer with Disabled American Veterans, but he was introduced to the DAV in the wake of his stint as a Vietnam veteran.
Cahill’s 13 years in the Army included a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1966-69 as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, a senior advisor to the 35th Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, and a special ops officer with the 5th Special Forces group, Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group.
“All that ended when I took a machine gun bullet,” said Cahill, who wears an eyepatch today.
Cahill credits his VA counselor with helping him take advantage of the GI Bill, which in turn allowed him to earn his doctorate and become a university professor. But he noted he didn’t get in touch with the DAV until a friend pointed out how he seemed to be suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The DAV became my advocate, helping me increase my compensation,” Cahill said. “The VA is a big organization that takes care of serious issues, but unfortunately, it’s still possible for folks to slip through the cracks.”
Cahill said the DAV’s role is to serve as veterans’ advocate in dealing with the VA’s large bureaucracy, with his role to ensure veterans’ claims have the correct documentation.
He helps veterans file their claims at the Port Townsend Community Center every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cahill said one of the most frequent requests he’s received is for hearing aids.
“Part of that is because of the age of our local population, of course,” Cahill said. “But we also have a lot of Navy veterans who were exposed to all kinds of abusive noises, whether on the flight line or in the boiler room. They always tell you to wear hearing protection, but it’s not always possible to do that while doing your job in the service. Those hearing assaults come back to haunt you.”
While Cahill estimates as many as 50 percent of his veterans’ claims so far have related to hearing issues, he also reported handling a number of indemnity claims for the spouses of service members who have died.
“Veterans’ service-connected compensations don’t extend beyond the grave, but in many cases, these are families who have come to rely upon those compensations not just as supplementary income, but as income,” Cahill said. “So, if they qualify, I help spouses obtain the compensation to which they’re entitled.”
Cahill hopes to clear up a misconception he once had, which is that many veterans believe the VA will compensate them only for significant physical disabilities.
“I think it was Teddy Roosevelt who said that anyone who lays their butt on the line for their country deserves a fair shake,” Cahill said. “You have these guys who don’t think their PTSD is serious. They’ll say, ‘I’ve learned to live with it. Just ask my four ex-wives.’ But the VA is not just if you’ve lost limbs.”
Cahill anticipates the veterans of America’s conflicts in the Persian Gulf will soon fall ill due to airborne contaminants from the burn pits in the oilfields.
“I’m guessing we’ll see a lot of cases of pulmonary dysfunction,” Cahill said. “It’s the job of the DAV to kick the government in the butt so they recognize these issues before they become catastrophic. My role in that is to help veterans submit their claims.”
Cahill’s Port Townsend branch of the DAV falls under the organization’s Chapter 5, whose main office is in Bremerton.
Leif Bentsen, treasurer and certified service officer for the DAV Chapter 5 in Bremerton, offered VA data for 2016 which showed that, of the estimated 3,900 veterans in Jefferson County, only 650 were receiving compensation benefits, averaging $1,175 per veteran per month.
Bentsen hopes Cahill’s outreach in Port Townsend will encourage more veterans to apply for benefits.
“Some veterans are reluctant to apply, because they think they might be taking money away from a more deserving veteran, or that they’re not eligible because they didn’t serve in combat,” Cahill said. “That’s not true. Eligibility is not based on combat experience, and eligible applicants will not be taking money away from others. Funding for VA programs is based on need.”
Bentsen advised veterans to bring their DD214 forms to Cahill on their first visit.
“If a veteran cannot find his or her discharge papers, Cahill will help the veteran apply for a new copy at the National Archives,” Bentsen said. “He will also help veterans enroll in VA healthcare.”
Even if you’re not a veteran, Cahill encourages people to refer others who might qualify to the DAV.
“If you know a vet who needs help, send them on over,” Cahill said.
The PT Community Center is at 620 Tyler St., and the local DAV can be reached at 360-385-9007.