From a smile, a cup of coffee or learning more about mental health needs — there are lots of ways individuals can support veterans of the Armed Forces of the United States.

In honor of Veteran’s Day Nov. 11, Erica Bliss of the Kanabec County Veteran’s Service Office shares information about how her office helps area veterans and their families, clears up misunderstandings and shares what others can do to support veterans.

Tell us about Kanabec County Veterans Services Office and what it does.

Kanabec County Veterans Service provides services to veterans and their families. Services range from navigating VA healthcare, VA benefits, burial benefits, financial assistance, homeless veterans and those struggling with mental health issues or substance use. 

We recommend that veterans and families connect with us to see what benefits they qualify for. Get to know your County Veterans Service Officer (CVSO) before an emergency or crisis occurs.  

Veterans who would benefit from the use of a computer for VA appointments, etc should contact our office.  We have access to technology for virtual appointments and can assist with the process. We encourage veterans who have been unable to see their primary care physician in person, due to COVID restrictions, contact our office for assistance in a secure/virtual meeting.

We like to refer to ourselves as a one-stop shop for veterans. If we don’t know the answer to your questions we will find it. If we don’t provide the service you need, we will link you to the resource. We partner with so many amazing local resources and veteran resources state-wide. 

What do you see as the biggest misconceptions about veterans service offices?

Many veterans believe we work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). County Veterans Service officers work for the county. Each Minnesota county has a CVSO. We are a member of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officer and the MN Association of County Veteran Service Officers. 

We all have accreditation with at least one National Service Organization. I am accredited with the VFW, American Legion, DAV, Vietnam Veterans of American and State of MN-Department of Veterans Affairs.

What barriers do you see that prevent veterans from utilizing the resources available to them?

One barrier unfortunately is veterans do not know we are here for them. When I started as the CVSO three years ago I began hosting Coffee Talk as a way for veterans to meet me. Although we had a few months we did not meet due to COVID, we are back to our regular meetings from 10-11 a.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month (except December) at Kev’s Depot (118 Railroad Ave).

Another barrier is some veterans have been “burned” or feel unfairly treated by the VA. This group of veterans may refuse to reach out to our office thinking there are no benefits available to them because they were told so in the past. 

The VA is constantly changing and adapting.  As laws change in the VA, programs open up. What is available now is very different from what was available even a decade ago. 

Veterans, if you have not spoken with a CVSO recently, make an appointment to see what benefits your service qualifies you for.  Our goal here at the CVSO office is to reach each veteran in our region and provide them services, support and education.

What veterans issues do you feel need more awareness and/or action?

Mental health is top of the list.  

Specifically we would like to see more families, caregivers and spouses receive the education and support they need. If a veteran is living with a mental health issue it is the veteran’s responsibility to know their triggers and symptoms. 

It is the veteran’s responsibility to have an open conversation with their support system about these things. But family members can educate themselves and reach out to support systems. 

If you love someone with a mental health issue, talk to him/her about it.  They may not be comfortable discussing the details or event if trauma is involved, but ask them about how they are feeling. 

Are they scared, agitated, depressed? What do those symptoms look like to your veteran? How should you behave around the veteran during these times? Ask the veteran who suffers from depression how you will know if they are considering suicide? 

Be open and honest with a veteran who suffers with suicidal thoughts. Are you thinking about killing yourself? Ask what you can do to help in certain circumstances? Ask the veteran what type of communication works best for them. 

We have come a long way from the shell-shock of WWII, but not far enough. Mental health still carries a real stigma for those of us who have it. It is difficult to admit you have depression but not as difficult to admit you have diabetes. 

We can change the culture but we can only do it together. Start at home with your veteran and allowing them to safely express they have a mental illness is a great first start. 

The VA caregiver support programs can be a real asset to any of us caring for a veteran. For more information or eligibility requirements please talk to a CVSO.

Tell us about something your office did that stands out as a success story. 

Every day we have the opportunity to help a veteran or surviving spouse.  We hope that every contact with have with a veteran or family member is done with kindness and compassion. We understand the value of our position to those seeking answers or assistance in a crisis. 

Whether we are meeting you for the first time on a good day or we are sitting beside you in a moment of despair we value your service, your humanity and will do everything we can to assist in getting you the help and benefits you deserve.

A success story to us is the phone call the day after a meeting when the veteran says “Thank you, you really helped me.” Sometimes all we did was talk. These are the moments most precious. 

Of course we also love getting phone calls from veterans after they receive a retroactive compensation payment. 

We have seen compensation payments change veterans lives. 

What are good ways for others to show support for veterans?

There are “free” ways to support veterans every day. 

When the National Anthem plays, stand and face the flag. Veterans are proud of their service to this country and they may display this on a hat, shirt or jacket. 

We are easy to recognize. Don’t pass them by. Look at them, smile and maybe even thank them for their service. Not all veterans are comfortable with “thank you” but I haven’t met one person who doesn’t like to receive a smile or nod.

With the assistance of VA programs more and more veterans are able to stay in their homes. Living at home has a lot of benefits but in Minnesota some may struggle to shovel the walk-way or mow the yard. 

Do you have time to help a veteran in need? Most importantly-check in on them. Living alone can be isolating and community living is not for everyone. Do you know a veteran who could benefit from a cup of coffee and conversation?  Don’t put it off until next week, check in with them today.

Are there any upcoming events or activities that you would like people to know about?

Our office is a drop-off site for Toys for Tots. Donations are being accepted now through Dec. 11.

Veterans Day service at 10 a.m. and lunch at 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 15 sponsored by Friendship Church of the Nazarene at 525 2nd St, Mora, MN 55051. Registration required; call 320-679-6380.

Our office hosts two Red Cross blood drives each year. Mark your calendars for April 22.

Coffee Talk is from 10-11 a.m. Nov. 24, Kev’s Depot, fourth Tuesday of each month.

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