Director Mike Ferguson advises veterans, “It never hurts to ask.”
By Dana Trumbull
Apache Junction is home to more than 1500 veterans – the single largest concentration of vets in Pinal County. And that doesn’t count the influx of veterans among the city’s winter visitors. When veteran Mike Ferguson decided to cultivate his experience as a national councilman with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) into a service that would be a direct conduit to veterans in Pinal County, Apache Junction was the logical place to be.
A donation of two rooms on the north side of the Desert Chapel United Methodist Church (462 N. Palo Verde Rd., Apache Junction) and generous support from the local veterans organizations made the Apache Junction Community Veterans Center a reality, and the center opened its doors on December 15, 2016.
Recognizing the varying needs of different generations of veterans, the center acts as a network hub, maintaining up-to-date information on benefits and helping veterans connect to and apply for a wide range of resources. Vets are also welcome to stop by to watch TV, read, use the computer, have some coffee and talk with other vets. “The services are whatever the veteran’s issue is,” offers Ferguson. “It could be anywhere from finding him a ride to helping her with the power bill. We had one veteran who had passed away in another area, and the family needed to ship his body to where he was going to be buried. So we got that set up and took care of the costs.” Often, older veterans come in, needing a copy of their DD214, knowing their family will need it to apply for benefits when they pass.
After a year in operation, the Community Veterans Center sees 30-50 veterans each month. The center is operated entirely by volunteers and is open Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., or Friday by appointment. “We see them all, and we’ve helped a lot of them,” says Ferguson. “Usually they just need a little help over the hump and then they’re on their way – some of them are waiting on jobs and just need something to help them get to the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“We’re busy,” Ferguson comments, “but we know that there are a lot of services that the veterans aren’t taking advantage of. A lot of people think we’re just here for the homeless veterans. But we have a lot of resources – a lot of other things that we can help with and answer questions and stuff of that sort.
“The homeless veterans and what we call the couch surfers – they don’t have a problem finding us. It’s the other veterans that we have a hard time reaching out to. The ones that may be pretty well on their feet, but they aren’t aware of or don’t know if they qualify for this or that benefit.”
Ferguson cites the need to stay informed about medical conditions that are common among veterans who were deployed in different eras and assistance available to the affected veterans. For example: Studies indicate that as many as 20% of Viet Nam veterans may have liver flukes – a type of parasite that can sometimes lead to cancer; and many Iraqi veterans are being diagnosed with TBI (traumatic brain injury), caused by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which were used extensively against Coalition Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of stuff here that they can find out about,” says Ferguson, “but we’re having trouble getting that word out. We can do VA claims, but there’s a lot of stuff we have here, including the latest information on injuries.
“We have a ton of information if they ever want to use it. And if we don’t have it here, we know where to go to hook them up. We help them file for e-Benefits, which basically puts them into the computer. Once we get that done, they can go online from any computer with their password and find out where they are with their claim or where and when their appointment is; they can stay at home and find the information online, instead of calling the Veterans Administration and being put on hold for 8 hours. Any veteran can be on e-Benefits, not just the homeless.
“The GI bill has a lot of changes in it, too,” Ferguson continues. “When I was getting the GI bill, it was only good for me. Now it’s changed to where, if I’m not going to use it, I can designate one of my family members – and a lot of veterans don’t know that. If you’re eligible, and your son or daughter is getting ready to graduate, and you’re trying to figure out how to pay for college, you can do that.”
Another program that is commonly overlooked is the Veteran’s Aid and Attendance benefit, which can provide elderly veterans or their surviving spouses tax-free income to help offset medical expenses, including the costs of caregivers and/or assisted living.
“Once a quarter, we have a resource event. We bring in representatives from all the resources we can, so the veteran can just stay here and not have to drive anywhere to get stuff done. We bring in the mobile veteran outreach service bus [Eagle One], so they’ve got a one-stop-shop if they want to come.”
Success stories from the center include donated cars and mobile homes given to veterans. “We gave one of the homes to a female veteran who was going blind, and we were able to move it up to Prescott, because that’s where her eye doctor is. She had to go in for treatments and testing all the time, so when we got the park model donated to us, a company here in AJ volunteered to haul it up.”
For more information about the Apache Junction Community Veteran’s Center, contact Executive Director Mike Ferguson at 480-228-0752. Or stop by the center at 462 N. Palo Verde Rd., Apache Junction (north side of the Desert Chapel United Methodist Church campus), Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., or Friday by appointment.