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Published: Thursday, 10/21/2004

Money woes put veterans on defensive

Soup kitchens are getting walloped. Food pantries are Mother-Hubbard bare.

So why shouldn't the county's Veterans Service Commission be stretched thin, too?

Still, Monday's story about the commission's budget shortfall caught my eye.

Three years ago, executive director Bob Mettler told me, the commission got maybe five monthly requests for help.

These days, they get 25 to 30 such calls every month.

This isn't the first time Mr. Mettler's agency has gone before county commissioners with upturned palms before the end of the fiscal year.

But these days, says Mr. Mettler, it's different: The economic downturn since Sept. 11, 2001, has hit local vets especially hard, just as veterans' problems grow increasingly complicated.

"We were set up after the Civil War as the Soldiers and Sailors Relief, to help veterans get things like plows," Mr. Mettler said.

It goes without saying that times - and needs - have certainly changed for vets.

Right there in Dave's living room, for example, is where you can find any number of modern problems converging.

A veteran of the Korean War (oops, Korean Conflict), Dave, who retired on disability in 1981, is 68. His wife, Laura, a homemaker and mother of six, is 70.

(No last names, please - Dave says it's tough enough to ask for a commission hand-out.)

Dave began work as a trucker at 16, when his father's debilitating industrial accident left the teen the family breadwinner. Until he retired, long-haul trucking was the only job Dave knew.

In the couple's modest suburban Oregon house, they outlined their precarious financial existence.

Starting the month with a grand total of $1,500 from Social Security and disability payments, right off the top the $787 mortgage payment whittles the couple's income by just over half.

There's the "affordable housing" issue.

Dave stopped driving truck after a work-related fall more than 20 years ago shattered a knee and injured his neck. And then, he says, six years ago a brain aneurysm burst and nearly killed him.

Because his blood-pressure pills are so important, Laura says she skips her cholesterol medication to make sure there's money for her husband's prescriptions.

There's the "high-cost-of-prescriptions" issue.

The couple says money was tight for years because it's not easy to stretch disability income far enough for six kids - seven, if you count the grandson Dave and Laura raised.

And, Laura says, "I couldn't work with seven kids, because I didn't know of any job that would have been enough to pay sitters."

There's the "day-care crunch" issue.

Mr. Mettler, the commission's chief, says there's no shortage of Korean and World War II vets asking his agency for help.

Most from that era, says Mr. Mettler, are as reluctant as Dave.

"I mean, my God, these are guys who never asked for anything but a housing loan. It's not easy for them, coming to us this way."



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