Veterans can get answers to job, education, benefit questions at county offices

Important help for those who have served



Matt Zamosky has been preparing for his job as director of the Westmoreland County Office of Veterans Affairs for most of his life.

Mr. Zamosky, a graduate of Hempfield Area High School, joined the Army National Guard at 17 and went on active duty with the Air Force two years later. After he retired as a master sergeant with 20 years of service, he worked briefly in the private sector and then started studies at Seton Hill University. While in school, he began a work-study job, first with the Governor's Veterans Outreach and Assistance Center and later with Westmoreland's veterans office.

Mr. Zamosky earned his degree in business at Seton Hill just as his Westmoreland County boss was retiring, and he was hired to fill the spot in January 2011. "It was the first and only job application I ever put in," Mr. Zamosky said.

The range of services provided via Westmoreland's four-person operation is similar to those offered in county veterans offices across the state. Accredited veterans service officers provide advice and information on job training, higher education options, pensions and health care benefits to the almost 1 million men and women in Pennsylvania who have served in the military. That number includes the approximately 200,000 veterans living in southwestern Pennsylvania. That statistic comes from the Office of Veterans Affairs at California University of Pennsylvania, which has won national recognition for its efforts to integrate ex-service personnel into college life.


Veterans: Where to call

All 67 counties in Pennsylvania have a director of Veterans Affairs. That office often is the first stop for men and women who have served in the military to get information about benefits.

Here is a partial list of Offices of Veterans Affairs in southwestern Pennsylvania and phone numbers:

• Allegheny County, 412-621-4357, Ron Conley, director

• Armstrong County, 724-548-3441, Rick Croyle, director

• Beaver County, 724-770-4450, Kathy Nairn, director

• Butler County, 724-284-5352, John Cyprian, director

• Washington County, 724-228-6865, Barry Grimm, director

• Westmoreland County, 724-830-3530, Matt Zamosky, director

Other places to start:

• McKeesport Veterans Center, 412-678-7704, Ed Bialobok, team leader

• Pittsburgh Regional Office, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1-800-827-1000

-- Compiled by Len Barcousky


'Pick up the phone'

"The best thing veterans can do when they leave the service is to pick up the phone and call the director of Veterans Affairs office in the county where they live," Barry Grimm advised. He is the head of Washington County's veterans agency.

"Probably the lion's share of what we do is assist veterans with pension and service-related disability claims," Mr. Zamosky said of the Westmoreland office. "We work as much as a referral agency, helping veterans to find other places to look for assistance. Sometimes it is as simple as getting them a phone number for people who know more about a program than we do."

During his 20 years in the Air Force, Mr. Zamosky was a fuel specialist, refueling airplanes and working in a fuels laboratory. He was deployed to the Mideast in Operation Desert Storm and then served in Turkey. His work managing people as a senior noncommissioned officer and his training in Air Force leadership schools helped to prepare him for his current position, he said.

Kathy Nairn, director of the Beaver County Department of Veterans Affairs, has more than 20 years of experience in working with service members. She has been head of the county office for the past four years.

The most common service her office provides is help with filing claims for pensions, service-related disabilities and GI education benefits for the almost 17,000 veterans in that county. The office also provides van service to take veterans to VA Pittsburgh and VA Butler Health System hospitals.

Beaver County vans carry about 70 people per month to medical appointments, according to Patty Zimmerman, an assistant in the county veterans office. Many veterans, looking for second careers, also seek information on GI Bill educational opportunities, she said.

Washington County is home to about 20,000 veterans, according to Mr. Grimm, director of that county's Veterans Affairs office. "The biggest request here is for 'Aid and Attendance' help for the spouse of a veteran," he said.

The Aid and Attendance benefit is classified as a pension payment. It is available only to veterans with wartime service and their surviving spouses who require in-home care or who live in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

"What seems to happen in a lot of cases is when the veteran passes away, the spouse survives but needs a personal care home or an in-home care giver," Mr. Grimm said.

Like the Veterans Affairs directors in other counties, Mr. Grimm said he, too, works with other agencies to help meet the needs of those who served in the military.

While he recommended a call to county Veterans Affairs offices as a good first step, those seeking guidance can contact military-related service organizations, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the VA's regional office in Pittsburgh directly.

Family counseling available

In addition to getting assistance with traditional benefits, veterans and their families have access to counseling services through 300 resource centers across the country. The centers are part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ed Bialobok is team leader at the McKeesport Vet Center, which last year provided confidential counseling to more than 4,000 people in a service area that includes portions of Allegheny, Westmoreland, Somerset and Bedford counties. Similar centers operate in Green Tree and Wheeling, W.Va.

What began in 1979 as an effort to assist Vietnam-era veterans has been expanded to help those who took part in all of the nation's conflicts, from World War II through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The vet centers also provide bereavement counseling for family members of service members who have been killed in the line of duty, Mr. Bialobok said.

Staff members include a family therapist and counselors who work with an increasing number of women veterans. "We have a female clinician who has done a lot of good work in reaching out to women veterans," he said.

The center handles walk-ins seeking help and referrals from other agencies and conducts its own outreach efforts. "We try to spread the word that these services are out there and veterans are entitled to them," he said.

Counselors from vet centers also work with families of service members in the reserves and National Guard units while they are deployed overseas. Those efforts can help head off future problems. "When the soldier returns, family members can be more aware of signs of distress," he said.

Westmoreland's veterans chief, Mr. Zamosky, said a need exists for the kind of assistance vet center counselors provide to service members when they come back from combat zones.

"Readjusting to home environment after being hypervigilant for 12 months is not easy," he said.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published November 8, 2012 5:00 AM


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