LaGRANGE — Since 2008, Defending America’s Defenders has spent about $22,000 helping area veterans whose medical care and benefits from the Veterans Administration were falling through the cracks.
The local nonprofit started eight years ago in response to what organizers saw as the problem of local veterans being left without needed benefits due to the bureaucracy of the VA system.
“I had a good friend who I found out was dying. … I went to see him, and the VA system sucks so bad, he was trying to get VA compensation — he got it three days after he died,” said Wayne Bennett, president of DAD, his frustration apparent as he spoke.
Another friend had cancer from exposure to Agent Orange — an herbicide used by the American military in the Vietnam War that has been linked to various cancers and health disorders — and it took him 46 months to be approved for benefits, according to Bennett. In the meantime, Bennett and others organized a motorcycle fundraiser to help out his friend, which inspired them to organize a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to help other veterans in need, creating Defending America’s Defenders.
Jack Struble, treasurer for the organization, has diabetes that he said is linked to his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. He said it first took him 15 months to get compensation. Bennett, whose legs were injured in service, also has dealt with the VA, notably when the group cut his compensation 60 percent without notice, which he appealed. It took two years before the group admitted it was a clerical error and repaid him, he said.
“Luckily we (he and his wife) had enough income from other sources we could survive to make it,” Bennett said. “But many veterans would be out on the streets if it happened to them.”
The DAD will help occassionally pay bills or buy groceries for veterans in need, and members have also constructed wheelchair ramps for some veterans. DAD also acts as a conduit to help connect veterans to benefits they may be due and sometimes help advocate for them with the VA to get those benefits. It also helps connect veterans to other local agencies that can help them like Disabled American Veterans or Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“So many vets don’t know they are eligible for benefits,” Bennett said, referring to the VA. “… We don’t take two years to make a decision (whether to help), we do it within a matter of hours.”
The group will help any military veteran in need, not only veterans of war, as long as they have proper documentation like a VA card or discharge document.
Bennett pointed out that all members are volunteers. There is no paid staff at DAD, so all funds raised go toward their programs helping vets. The group typically offers aid one to three times per veteran based on need, allowing it to spread its services to more veterans.
“We’re mainly a fill-in-the-gap type group,” Bennett said. “… We can’t support veterans financially, but we try to keep them from becoming homeless and give them something to eat.”
The group usually has an annual motorcycle ride in May. It also previously hosted a second annual fundraiser, “Cabin Fever,” a concert featuring area bands. It currently is seeking a new location, preferably indoors, for that event.
Anyone seeking to volunteer or help, or veterans seeking assistance from DAD may contact Wayne Bennett at 706-333-8736.
Matthew Strother is the editor of LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2153.