Driving through Eureka, the city’s love of the High School Hornets is immediately apparent.
But you won’t have to look very far to find their other love: a support for veterans. Not just those in Woodford County, but all over the Heart of Illinois.
But every day, veterans aren’t getting what they earned: a helping hand in the form of their VA benefits.
“It’s like they don’t even know that we’re here,” lamented Randolph Prunty, a Veterans Service Officer with Woodford County. “We’re reaching out. We need those veterans to sign up for those benefits that they’ve earned.”
Prunty insists everyone who meets him call him Randy. He’s a Vietnam veteran who has made it his life’s work to help as many of his fellow vets as he can.
“Just the satisfaction of being able to make that breakthrough and help…it’s there.”
It doesn’t matter if veterans are from Woodford, Peoria or McLean counties – Prunty helps them all.
He even went so far as to take a Peoria veteran to New York City to fulfill the dying wish of one of his World War II comrades.
Prunty’s drive – and that of his coworkers – has helped over 4,000 vets to date to claim benefits like tax breaks, health insurance and housing assistance.
“I’m glad to see now that the veterans are getting what they deserve. They deserve a lot more, some of them,” said Al Helsel, Superintendent for the Woodford County Veterans Assistance Commission.
“Some of them, when you talk to them, seeing Randy and I…they’re saying there are other veterans who are worse off. Which isn’t true.”
Proud to Serve
Helsel identified one of the major problems facing veterans today: a sense of strength from training that now could be a detriment.
“It’s the pride,” he said with a familiar nod. “You know why it’s the pride? It’s drilled into us (veterans) in basic training.”
To talk to the veterans, you go to where the veterans are – such as Peoria’s 50’s Diner.
“I think it’s a ‘macho’ thing,” elaborated Vietnam veteran Patrick Weitzel. “The ‘I can do what all the other guys do, they don’t need this, I don’t need it either.’ I thought that way, too.”
Weitzel flew with Heart of Illinois ABC on the Honor Flight in May. During lunch, one thing he said in particular stood out: “Young men act, old men reflect.”
“Some old men realize – sooner than other old men, that they need help,” he mused.
Weitzel recalled an offer to join in on a group therapy session with other Vietnam veterans. He declined the offer.
“I thought…these guys were all combat veterans. I didn’t think I needed it as badly as they did. And I guess, for many years, I needed it and wasn’t aware of it.”
Weitzel does take advantage of his VA benefits. He’s been able to afford a home and all his health care.
A Lasting Legacy
VA benefits are more than just help for the vet, though; they’re a safety net for their spouse and family.
Prunty knows all too well the cost of waiting until it’s too late.
“I could give any number of examples of spouses and family members that have come in from a veteran that waited too long.”
Prunty explained that benefits aren’t typically worth as much if new claims are made after a veteran passes away.
“They need to come in right away,” he insisted.
Margaret Anderson just moved from Wisconsin, grateful for her late husband Glenn’s benefits so she can live comfortably.
“Glenn was thinking beyond just himself, to when he would not be there necessarily to provide for me,” she said. “The military’s been great to us, and the VA is following through.”
That is the ultimate goal for Prunty, Helsel and the rest of the VAC: to help veterans and their families get what they deserve.
“Just, please,” pleaded Helsel, “come see one of us service officers. We can help you. We can try. The VA is a good organization.”
Weitzel, having lived through it, agreed.
“Go and get the help. Even if you think you may not need it, go talk to somebody.” He sipped his coffee for a moment, thinking. “You’ve earned it. And if anybody in the country has any rights, it’s the veteran.”
Don’t think of claiming benefits you’re owed as a weakness.
Regardless of where or when you served, VA benefits can be a major strength that lives on through you, your spouse, and your family.