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Houghton County VA office stayed busy serving vets in 2015

HOUGHTON – Veteran visits and claims were stable in Houghton and Keweenaw counties in 2015.

During the year, there were 744 veterans’ appointments from Houghton County at the Houghton County Veteran Affairs office, and 228 claims for things such as pensions filed, said Jim Klutts, director of the office, which serves both counties.

From Keweenaw County, there were 53 veteran visits and 17 claims.

Houghton County’s Veterans Affairs was created eight years ago after voters approved 0.1 mills for a 10-year period. At 2,979 veterans, Houghton County has the fourth-most in the Upper Peninsula.

“When you stop to assume there’s dependents, spouses in there, the veterans community in Houghton County is probably well over 6,000,” said VA board member Gene LaRochelle.

The Michigan Veterans Affairs agency in Lansing was recently subdivided into regions, which included one encompassing the U.P. One downside is the possibility that the local board that approves Michigan Veterans Trust Fund requests will be replaced. Klutts has heard two possibilities; a regional board for the Upper Peninsula, or a three-person board in Lansing.

The trust fund covers requests from veterans for things such as utility bills.

“Local control for this process is very important,” he said. “We know who the people are, we know what their needs are, we know who’s who. And that was the original idea behind the approval of the trust fund. That’s why it was a local board.”

Nineteen local requests were made to the state fund in 2015; 16 were approved, consisting of $18,833 in emergency funds.

The county also has its own fund for veterans who served between the end of the Vietnam War era in 1975 and the start of the Gulf War in 1990, who are not covered by the state trust fund.

At the national level, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs came under fire in 2014 for widespread delays in appointments, and the manipulation of records to hide them. Since then, Klutts said, it has become vastly more efficient. Claims that once took a year to process are now done in about four to six months, depending on the complexity of the claim, he said.

The county VA office is also active in buying flags for veterans’ graves. The state requires each cemetery to place a flag on veterans’ graves; there are 19 cemeteries in Houghton County alone, LaRochelle said.

People who are on the fence about whether they qualify for a claim should file. In the eight years, he said, he’s only seen two cases that were too frivolous to merit filing for a claim.

The Veterans Affairs office, located on 23810 Airpark Boulevard near the Houghton County Memorial Airport, is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.