By Kaye Bennett
If you’re one of the 1,800 veterans who live in South County, Robert Barton would like to meet you—and possibly to help you better understand how to access services from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Since May 2014, Barton, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army himself, has been volunteering his time at South County Community Services (SCCS) to help fellow vets with questions about benefits, health care, and other service-related issues.
A native of Comstock, Barton joined the Army in 1965, saw combat in Vietnam, retired from the military in 1997, then entered the seminary. After serving as a minister in Southern Baptist and Cumberland Presbyterian churches in Tennessee, he retired again in 2009, moving to Kline’s Resort where he lives with his wife Lorraine and brother Zachary.
Barton’s own military experience in Vietnam led to the role he plays with SCCS and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) now. He recalls how helicopters often did not touch down, in order to avoid drawing enemy fire. Instead, young soldiers like Barton would jump out as they hovered a few feet above ground. Over time, the damage that did to his back caused Barton to qualify for 60 percent disability, and led to his activity in the DAV. When the DAV wanted someone to attend Service Officers School, Barton volunteered, becoming certified to work as an advocate, helping other vets understand their benefits. The first thing he did was to download and read all 1,500 pages of the VA’s rules and regulations. “Some of it is gobbledygook,” he laughs, “but some helps you understand.”
Since he began working with SCCS in May, Barton has helped 75 vets or their family members address a variety of issues. These range from replacing lost service ribbons to getting reimbursement for burial benefits for widows who didn’t know they were entitled to them.
Recently Barton helped a Vietnam vet whose financial situation was dire. The vet, Barton discovered, had been exposed to Agent Orange and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He qualified for disability payments which, though small, meant that “he and his wife didn’t have to turn the heat off at night,” Barton says. This can even help the community, he adds: When a vet applies for and gets a compensable benefit, some of those dollars get spent for South County businesses and services.
Another success story Barton relates is helping a Vietnam vet get his dishonorable discharge upgraded to general, so he would become eligible for VA benefits. This problem is not uncommon in vets from that war, Barton says. Back then, before PTSD was understood—before the term had even been coined—young men returning from what Barton calls “the insanity of war” did “strange things,” earning dishonorable discharges. In the light of current knowledge about this condition, these cases can sometimes be reclassified.
Sometimes Barton says all a vet needs is a listening ear. As a matter of fact, he points out, that’s something anyone can do. “Vets often have a need to share their stories. If a vet starts to tell you a story, listen to it.” The VA has begun compiling these stories, so, when a local WWII combatant told Barton about his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge, Barton passed the story along to the VA to be preserved.
Danna Downing, executive director of SCCS, says of Barton, “We’re lucky he found us. He’s doing a world of good. There’s a magic that happens when somebody cares about somebody else.”
Downing hopes that the agency will be able to add even more services for vets. If anyone is interested in being trained to drive local vets to the VA Hospital in Battle Creek or in donating to a fund to help vets in need, she says, they can phone her or Barton at SCCS, 269-649-2901.
You can meet with Robert Barton at SCCS, 105 S. Kalamazoo Street in Vicksburg, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Thursdays.