Special Report: Veterans service officers mix dedication with ‘a heart to serve’

Dennis Kubischta had no desire to become a veterans service officer. The man who called to offer him the job was vague about the details and then issued a warning: “Some days you’ll be doing this and wish you were doing something else.”

“I said, ‘That doesn’t sound too good,’” Kubischta recalls.

The man on the other end of the phone – chairman of county commissioners – made him the Steele County, N.D., veterans service officer anyway. Eighteen years later, they have both been proven wrong.

“I’ve loved every minute of this job,” says Kubischta, who is now part-time veterans service officer for both Steele and Griggs counties, as well as a full-time farmer.

Katrina Hodny, meanwhile, had no reservations about going to work for the Walsh County Veterans Service Office. “As a veteran and a Walsh County native, I felt I could do more for my fellow veterans,” she says of her decision to become a service officer after her discharge from the Army.

Kubischta and Hodny are making tremendous differences on behalf of veterans who leave the military, go back to the farm and never think they’re eligible for benefits, says Jim Deremo, the Legion’s department service officer in North Dakota. “They do a heck of a job out here for little pay,” he says. “A lot of vets can be thankful they are out there.”

Take Richard Bounds, for instance. He couldn’t understand why he suffered from liver and kidney failure when there was no history of such problems in his family. “There’s no rhyme or reason as to why I got sick,” he says.

Bounds mentioned it to Kubischta, with whom he’d served in the Marines in the 1970s. “Dennis worked tirelessly to solve this,” he says. “I would call him at least once a week requesting updates. He would even answer while combining on his farm. The only time he put me on hold was when he needed to turn the machine to start another row of crops.”

Kubischta consulted with Deremo and determined that Bounds had been stationed at a Marine Corps base with toxic-waste problems. They filed a claim on Bounds’ behalf in May 2011. VA approved it nine months later.

“What Dennis and Jim did for me – and what The American Legion did for me – changed my life,” Bounds says.

Hodny, too, draws praise from the veterans she’s helping in Walsh County, north of Kubischta’s territory.

Bud Ramsey tried to convince the Army that his hearing was severely damaged when he served with an artillery unit during the Korean War. He was so frustrated by failed attempts to get help that it took the Ramseys’ pastor and the mayor of Park River to persuade him to see Hodny about filing a claim. Ramsey was so surprised that Hodny succeeded in getting the claim approved “that we stopped back in her office to see if everything was legit,” says Ramsey’s wife, Ruth.

Deremo, the department service officer, attributes the success of these county-based veterans advocates to something more than knowing how to navigate the claims system. “Dennis is a fighter,” he says. “Katrina has a heart to serve veterans, (and) she’s not afraid to take on big cases.”

Service officers cover all 53 North Dakota counties, a corps established by the state legislature in 1945 and funded by a small property tax levy. Some service officers, including Kubischta, cover multiple sparsely populated counties. The Fort Berthold, Fort Totten and Standing Rock tribes also have their own service officers. The county service officers work with the Legion’s Deremo and other national service officers.

Local American Legion posts play an important role in Kubischta’s and Hodny’s outreach efforts.

Today, Kubischta laughs when he remembers the warning he received when he accepted the position long ago.  “I love the heck out of this job,” he says. “The best part ... is when the claims are successful, and these guys get the help they deserve.”