Veterans service officer is coming to a location near you

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By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

BRONSON — If you are a military veteran Mike Engle wants to meet you.

He’s recruiting, but not to send folks back into military service, he’s looking for veterans to help them claim any services they are entitled to from the Veterans Administration.

Engle is the Levy County Veterans Service Officer and with his staff of two he helps veterans file claims and get transportation to the VA Clinic in Gainesville.

And with economic hardship hitting many veterans, Engle has seen an uptick in a request for services.

“We are seeing some veterans who would not have filed a claim before saying give it to someone else who is worse off than me, come in to file a claim,” Engle said.

The Veterans Administration says there are 5,000 veterans living in Levy County, and there are those snowbirds who are also veterans living here part of the year. Engle has made contact with about 2,500 veterans. He said the VA, while telling him how many veterans live here does not provide him with names and addresses so he can contact them.

That’s part of the challenge of his job, finding the other 2,500 or so veterans.

Toward that end, he hits the road like a traveling salesman, sets up a table, chairs, brochures and laptop in Chiefland at the Wal-Mart from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the first Friday of the month; in Williston at Hitchcock’s supermarket on the second Friday, on the third Friday in Inglis at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post and on the fourth Friday on Cedar Key at the grocery store. He can register veterans and file claims for them using the laptop. He’s already signed up 130 new clients through the outreach.

While he cannot make appointments at the VA medical center in Gainesville, Engle can put the veterans in touch with the center and help them in arranging transportation. He said the Gainesville center has an arrangement with Nature Coast Transit to provide rides for veterans without the means to get to the center.

When he is not on the road, Engle is at the Veterans Service Center in the small red brick building beside the county courthouse on Court Street in Bronson. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Veterans who visit the office can use a computer station to access information about services and job placement. But one dire need Engle sees is providing housing for homeless veterans — a problem that may grow larger with the current recession. He knows of 15-20 homeless veterans in the county. And there may be more. “Absolutely,” he said. “The ones that stay in the woods, even if shelter was provided I have my doubts they would go to it.” He said some have their doubts about taking anything from the government.

But for those who could use such a facility, Engle is working to obtain a 1.5 acres of land for a shelter, and is talking to other veterans and the Board of County Commissioners about construction of a shelter.