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John Paradis: Weekend project reaches out to veterans

And yet too many veterans’ benefits sit idle because too few veterans know they exist. Even as returning veterans struggle to find work or deal with stresses of combat, their challenges can be compounded when they fail to take advantage of state and federal resources.

According to a recent U.S. Senate hearing chaired by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, veterans eligible for aid aren’t receiving it — either because they don’t know benefits exist or because they don’t know how to get them.

In Massachusetts, thousands of veterans aren’t receiving benefits they’ve earned, says Northampton’s Steve Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services and president of the Massachusetts Veterans Service Officers Association.

The problem is particularly troublesome in the smallest communities in the commonwealth. Connor and several other local veterans want to change that.

To kick things off, today and Saturday, Connor has organized the first-ever Small Town Veterans’ Expo at the Cummington Fairgrounds. The idea is to reach more veterans in the Hilltowns and rural areas of western Massachusetts.

By gathering organizations together, the aim is to ease confusion in applying for or learning about benefits and to break down barriers in getting assistance. Oftentimes just having people available to answer questions and to point a veteran in the right direction is the best way to help.

According to VA statistics, approximately 30 percent of all veterans live in rural regions. These include veterans in western Massachusetts who haven’t accessed services. Distance is often cited as a limiting factor.

Connor says many veterans in western Massachusetts just don’t know where to go or who to ask or won’t — or can’t — drive to service centers in Boston, let alone Springfield or Northampton. Information now available on the Internet is great, but not all veterans have a smartphone or basic access to a computer or even an email address.

The expo will feature representatives of the Central Hampshire Veterans Services office, joined by people with the state Department of Veterans’ Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA’s Mobile Vet Center, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and the Franklin Hampshire Career Center. The expo starts today and Saturday at noon and ends each day at dusk. Connor said it will be an informal and, he hopes, fun opportunity for veterans to learn about services.

Entertainment and refreshments will be offered and military vehicle displays will be an attraction. Local singer and recording artist Lindsay LaBelle will bring her brand of country/pop fusion to the stage Friday.

A recognition ceremony in honor of National Military Appreciation Month will be held at the fairgrounds at noon Saturday with local dignitaries.

A parade of military vehicles, in what Connor calls a “Welcome Home Convoy,” will leave Pelham on Route 9 Saturday morning at 10 a.m., heading west to the fairgrounds. It is meant to say thank you to returning combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans are asked to bring a legible copy of their military discharge papers to help counselors determine their entitlements.

Although younger veterans — those who served in the post-9/11 war period — are better versed in their benefits, a good number, at least 45 percent by some estimates, have little or no understanding of their benefits, says Sanders, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Among older veterans, including those from Vietnam, Korea and World War II, the percentage jumps higher.

Veterans are eligible for a range of benefits, from access to medical and dental care to payments for disabilities suffered during military service to access to education, life insurance and home loan programs.

Many veterans believe that, because they were not injured in the service, they don’t deserve benefits. Entitlements, I often hear them tell me, should be reserved for somebody else. Not every veteran considers himself or herself a hero wounded in the heat of battle, although many were injured while on active duty. But they did do their jobs and did not ask much in return.

They enlisted, did what they were told and served honorably. Now it’s time to increase awareness among all veterans about programs and services available to them.

Cummington this weekend is one great place to start.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the communications director for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

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