“A lot of vets come in here to get help navigating the Veterans Administration, or to find out what’s wrong with their lives. We try to help,” said Robert Caldwell, an attorney who is a member of what’s called the Joint Service Committee, meeting almost daily at the Mountlake Terrace American Legion Hall. He and more than a dozen other volunteers from the Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America have banded together to form a group that works in concert to benefit vets.
“All service organizations have their own service officers but we approach it a little differently,” he said. “We know that if we work cooperatively we can help more vets,” he said.
And they do. Just last year, Caldwell and his fellow volunteers assisted 292 vets, most of whom are local.
“By far the largest number of our clients are from South Snohomish County including Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood, Edmonds, Mill Creek and Bothell,” Caldwell said. “We also get a fair number from North King County around Shoreline. We’re beginning to see a number of younger veterans from Edmonds Community College due to our work at the Veterans Resource Center there two days a month.“ The committee spends about eight hours a month at the college in an effort to engage this younger cohort.
In addition, the committee assists vets all over the country and internationally, its reputation spreading mostly by word of mouth.
Caldwell noted that the issues these vets face vary widely. “They often come in struggling, looking for compensation from the VA, which is kind of like workers’ comp but for the military, to get compensation for injuries and disease. They can have injuries more profound than a purple heart shows.”
Indeed, 90 percent of the committee’s work is with people suffering the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“We try to do a few things: Give them camaraderie so they know they’re not alone. We try to get them into the VA’s PTSD center, and we help with the claim process, which is byzantine. If we have to, we appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.”
The committee has had encouraging success with the court and with the VA, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars and other benefits for veterans. “For example, an appeal that we just won for a Vietnam veteran resulted in an award of $3,100 per month for life plus $90,000 in retroactive benefits since 2015, and full health and dental care from the VA Medical Center,” he said, adding that the committee has won a dozen or so similar awards in the last year for veterans.
“We also have a healing circle that meets,” said Caldwell. “We get a bunch of guys together and talk about what how difficult life can be. They all have a story.”
That story, built up over time, is part of the problem, Caldwell said. He knows from personal experience.
“I was a paratrooper in Vietnam. We got our asses kicked a lot. It was all so hard to understand that I had to tell a story, one that didn’t cost me emotionally. But that builds a brick wall,” he said. “We want to help vets get honest with themselves and see how their behavior today is directly linked to being in war. They can lose that B.S. wall and start to understand themselves.”
To honor these vets, the healing circle gives out a small PTSD medal. “And that’s because they need to know this is an honorable thing,” said Caldwell. “You have PTSD because you were there. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You earned it.”
Caldwell added this kind of approach doesn’t only apply to vets who saw combat. Just being near a war zone can leave a mark.
“There are a lot of tears. I understand. I was a 20-year-old paratrooper in some nasty country. There were nights when I bargained with myself: ‘Let me see daylight and I will do something to make up for all of this.’”
So he became a lawyer. “In my first case to go to the appeals court, I won. I found that I liked lifting someone’s life up.”
He and others decided there is more strength in numbers so they formed the Joint Service Committee, with about two-dozen people volunteering on behalf of vets.
Caldwell admitted it’s a lot of work — especially the bureaucratic paperwork — but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “When you can put money in their pocket it’s a good feeling,” he said. “For me, practicing law stimulates my brain. Helping vets enhances my life.”
The Joint Service Committee can be contacted at 425-776-5490.
— By Connie McDougall