Veteran Services: Working for the heroes

Minnesota is preparing for the greatest ever influx of returning troops this summer. Communities across the state will celebrate. Attention will focus on National Guard units returning from service in Iraq.

Minnesota is preparing for the greatest ever influx of returning troops this summer. Communities across the state will celebrate. Attention will focus on National Guard units returning from service in Iraq.

Lessons have been learned from past returnees and programs are now in place to help with the transition from war to civilian life. A contingent of County Veterans Service Officers will be among those travelling to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin to meet the returning troops.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are currently over 6,000 veterans in Otter Tail County. The Otter Tail and East Otter Tail Veterans Service Officers and staff are there to work for them and the newest veterans - one by one, individually.

Minnesota County Veterans Service Officers serve as the primary point of contact for all veterans' benefits. In East Otter Tail County, Charlie Kampa is that first contact. It's been nearly one year since Kampa left a 25-year career in broadcasting to become an advocate for veterans.

For 18 years Kampa was known as "the Voice of Good Neighbor radio, KBRF" in Fergus Falls. When he signed off on May 31, 2006 it was the end of arriving at the station at 4:30 in the morning to begin his broadcast day at 5 a.m. He began each day by playing the National Anthem and there was never any doubt about Kampa's patriotism and dedication to fellow veterans.


Shortly after his wife, Amy, mentioned that she thought he would enjoy the work of a Veterans Service Officer Kampa had the Otter Tail County Officers as guests on his program. It didn't take long for him to gather his courage and begin the process that landed him in the New York Mills office responding to individual veterans and their family members.

Kampa is also in satellite offices on Tuesday and Wednesday every week and will travel to see housebound veterans and their families in their home.

Kampa served in the Navy from 1976 to 1980. He enlisted to see the world and get an education. He accomplished both by being stationed in the Philippines and going on two Western Pacific cruises on the USS Monticello. He visited all the south pacific countries except Taiwan. After leaving the Navy he used his G. I. Bill education benefits to attend the Brown Institute for Broadcasting which lead to his long radio career.

It was difficult for Kampa to leave his radio family where he enjoyed the interaction with the community and individual people. Now he's in a position to help individual veterans. And he emphasizes that each situation is unique, "Everybody is so individual in their needs." "Every day is something new."

Kampa usually visits for about an hour to 90 minutes with a veteran or family member and then puts in an equal amount of time to follow up. Some eligibility claim forms for Veterans Assistance can be filled out in as little as 15 to 20 minutes. Some situations take much longer to resolve. He recently spent three hours trying to find a legal precedent to help out one veteran.

Veterans and families who visit the County Service Officers range in age from those who served in World War II to those currently being discharged. All 87 Minnesota counties report an increase in Viet Nam era veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder claims.

Kampa trained for four months with the Fergus Falls staff before coming to New York Mills. He says he had "great training, but is still learning." That's his one frustration, "I can't learn fast enough. There's so much more to get to know."

With so many State and Federal benefits available to Minnesota veterans and the accompanying rules and regulations, Kampa says a Veterans Service Officer needs to know a little bit about medical, law, veterans' law, claim development, investigating (where it's helpful to think outside the box), insurance and tax accounting. The Benefits Manual of Federal Veterans Laws, Rules and Regulations alone has 1,875 pages. And of course, there's a form for everything. Jourdan Sullivan, Otter Tail County Veterans Services Director says there's 140 different forms for VA uses with claims work!


That speaks to the need for veterans to visit their Service Officer to see what benefits might be available and to get headed in the right direction. A message on the Otter Tail County Web site reads, "If you are not working through a County Veterans Service Office, you may not have a competent advocate!" Kampa points out a veteran "usually comes in with a specific issue and sometimes discovers other issues for claims." All veterans have two years after discharge to sign up for benefits unless there is a service related mental or physical disability. After the two-year period there is a financial means test. Not every veteran will be eligible for VA services, but should check.

Kampa says he's working with the greatest people: "these folks and their focus and the veterans we've helped here." Also working in the New York Mills office is Syd MacLean who has been a Benefits Counselor for six years. MacLean is a Charter Member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

The most recent addition to the East Otter Tail team is Shari Fresonke of Dent. Fresonke retired last July from the Air Force as a Master Sargeant after 24 years of service. Fresonke works part time to keep the office open while Kampa visits satellite offices. Her first 18 years of service were in personnel, a background she finds very helpful in her new Office Manager position. She agrees with Sullivan, "there's lots of forms!" Fresonke served her last years as a generals' aide working with the generals and their wives.

In her Air Force career, Fresonke was stationed in Germany, Virginia, NDSU in Fargo with the ROTC program, Korea, Montana, United Kingdom, Colorado, and Illinois. She says she most enjoyed the United Kingdom because of the travel opportunities. She is a member of the Dent American Legion Post 148.

Sullivan is pleased with the "great additions" to the East County staff. He says the County Board has been generous and helpful in hiring needed help. Sullivan says they've "been fortunate to be able to acquire Charlie" and have him in a position where he will be able to continue his service to his country and fellow vets." He expresses confidence that this will be a long second career for Kampa.

Kampa also sees a long second career advocating for veterans. He knows he's working for the taxpayers, but his patriotism and dedication to veterans soften his voice when he says, "I'm helping the heroes; anyone who has served is a hero."

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