Last spring, Billy Hurley’s profession as a bartender provided him with a job opportunity near Trinidad, Colo. Hurley made the move out West from his home in Virginia Beach, Va., and two months later he lost his job. COVID-19 shut down the business where he worked.
Hurley, a U.S. Navy veteran, was able to find assistance from the VA’s Supportive Service for Veteran Families (SSVF) following unemployment. But last winter, he was in a bind – he found new employment but needed to back pay one month of overdue rent. Hurley’s counselor with SSVF gave him American Legion Post 11 Service Officer Raymond Odum’s number to call and see what help was available.
Hurley called Odum and said, “I’m stable now. I have a job to pay my rent but I can’t pay two months’ rent. He said, ‘No problem. I got you.’ I was completely stressed out to the max, and Ray solved it all. It brings me to tears talking about it.
“In your brain you don’t think so highly of yourself sometimes when you’re in that situation, when you’re broke and you owe rent. You feel really down. Ray was like, ‘We got you man. Lift your head up, put your shoulders back, you’re good. And move forward.’”
Odum has been a veteran service officer for Post 11 and Las Animas County in Trinidad for the past four years. “My role as a veteran service officer is very important in my community. I work with all of the veteran organizations in Las Animas County, which I get to know a lot of veterans, and that enables me to understand what is needed in my community. Not only is helping veterans and their families gratifying, it’s also that they know that The American Legion is there for them and their families.”
Post 11 applied for a Veterans Trust Fund grant through the state of Colorado last year and received a grant of $27,500. The grant has enabled the American Legion post to provide veterans in the Las Animas County with food, gas, rent and other needs. “It was great that we received that grant, and it allowed us to help our veterans,” Odum said. This included Hurley.
After speaking over the phone, Hurley visited Odum at Post 11. “When meeting with a veteran for the first time I tell them what I do and then I let the veteran tell me about themselves,” Odum said. “To build a rapport with them so they understand I’m there for them. Next question I ask is, how can I assist you today?” For Hurley, it was help with late rent.
“Not only did he pay the (rent) payment on the spot (from the grant funds), he tried to give me money for groceries,” Hurley said. “When I walked out of his office a big weight had my lifted off my shoulders. I felt refreshed. I felt like somebody had my back. And it was The American Legion and Ray that had my back.”
Hurley receives care from the VA, but this was his first time meeting with a veteran service officer. “I see that we need these (veteran service officers) out here because we don’t know the programs, we don’t know the grants, we don’t know the paperwork that needs to be filed for our injuries,” Hurley said. “I have been to the VA a hundred times and no one has ever asked me (about filing a benefits claim). But a VSO did.”
Odum said it is his duty to ensure that veterans understand the benefits that they earned through military service. “My overall goal is to make sure that every veteran that comes to my office leaves with the right information, whether I’m their representative or not," he said. "I would hope that I gain their trust by letting them know what I do as a veteran service officer. That they are not charged, we are a nonprofit organization and we are there to help serve them.”
American Legion service officers are specially trained to provide VA claims and benefits assistance, free of charge, to any veterans and their families. This training and assistance is made possible through The American Legion Veterans & Children Foundation, which provides the ongoing training that American Legion service officers need to remain updated on VA procedures, benefits and more.
“The importance of continuing (VSO) training is to make sure you stay updated on changes” Odum said. “Every year something changes and you have to be able to put out the right information to veterans. It is important that you have the right training, that you stay certified.”
And American Legion service officers represent all veterans, whether or not you are a Legionnaire.
Odum “was ready to help me,” said Hurley who is not a Legion member. “The American Legion was there for me in my time of need. Ray, he didn’t make me feel less than. He knows that veterans run into problems and he’s there to solve our problems, with all of his knowledge of the VA and service-connected disabilities. We need guys like that. Because there are veterans like me who get lost in the system, we don’t know who to talk to. We get to see the (VA) doctors and psychologists. That’s it. That’s where it stops.
“If you want to take it further to get help with service-connected disability needs, or grant money, you are going to have to have a VSO guide you through the VA. You can’t do it on your own. It’s impossible.”
Odum said he will continue to serve as an American Legion veteran service officer “to ensure that veterans understand the benefits for the sacrifices and commitment to our country … their thank you is what’s rewarding. ‘Thank you for taking the time to explain how to file a claim.’ Or ‘Ray, I will tell everyone about The American Legion.’ That right there is a great thank you to me. It makes you feel really good inside.”