The county is home to 10 percent of Georgia’s veterans, the most of any county in the state, yet there is no a local office of the Georgia Department of Veterans Services where veterans can file basic paperwork, said Mike Boyce, a veteran of the Marine Corps.
Boyce worked as a pilot in the Marine Corps and then as a budget and Middle East expert in Washington D.C. between 1971 and 2001. He lives with his wife in Marietta and remains active with veteran groups.
Cobb’s nearly 70,000 veterans are entitled to a number of benefits after their service, but many do not take advantage of them because there is no local office to help ease the headache of paperwork, Boyce said.
Veterans can apply for free driver’s licenses, if they can prove they are in fact veterans, Boyce said.
He had to drive into Atlanta to get a document signed confirming he had served in the military before he could apply for a license at the Department of Drivers Services back home in Cobb, he said.
Boyce has been working with Lee for about a year, he said, to get a place in Cobb for veterans to fill out and file documents for licenses, education and disability benefits.
Lee said he has worked with Rick Graham, the director of operation for the state’s DVS for about a year, looking for a suitable location for the veteran’s center. Lee said the pair has finally found an adequate location for the offices at the Cobb Senior Wellness Center on Powder Springs Street, near the Powder Springs Shopping Center.
“Until Rick came and talked with us a year ago, we did not realize there was a hole in the state’s service area for veterans,” Lee said.
The commissioners will vote at an upcoming meeting to allow County Manager David Hankerson to negotiate with the Georgia DVS to work out a timeline for building the center and paying for its lease, Lee said.
“We will bear the costs of a build out, they will bear the costs through the lease agreement and operating costs in the future,” Lee said.
The details as to who will construct the offices and how much the offices will cost will be determined within the next few months, Lee said.
Two full-time employees from the Georgia DVS will work in the Powder Springs Street offices, Boyce said.
Cobb taxpayers will fund the renovations of the Senior Center and the addition of the office, Boyce added, but the Georgia DVS will foot the bill for the lease and salaries of the staff.
“The Georgia Department of Veterans Services and Georgia as a whole has extraordinary benefits for veterans, you have to go up to Canton or down to the Sloppy Floyd Building in Atlanta to get benefits,” Boyce said.
Boyce is relieved Cobb will have its own place for local veterans, and believes the offices are much-needed. Veterans in Cobb are deterred by the distance traveling to Canton or Atlanta just to get benefits, and the local offices, Boyce believes, will be busy with veterans finally accessing the various benefits they are entitled to.
“There is no question about it. The biggest challenge veterans have is becoming aware of all the benefits available to them,” Boyce said.
The local offices will be allies for local veterans applying for benefits with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Boyce said.
“These centers become your advocates. Applying for a disability claim in the VA without an advocate is like going to court without a lawyer,” Boyce said.
Local veterans encouraged by new office
Ron Mazzola, the senior vice commander of the American Legion Post 304 in Acworth, is heartened by the news of a state office in Cobb.
Mazzola thinks a number of local veterans will use the offices to apply for much-needed benefits.
“Believe it or not, veterans don’t even know they are entitled to get a free driver’s license. The office will deliver benefits to those who need them,” Mazzola said.
He estimated nearly 70 percent of veterans don’t know the number of benefits they are entitled to after serving.
Bill Liemhop, a retired member of the U.S. Navy, and former state commander of the American Legion, said workers at the Georgia Department of Veterans Services offices would be an asset to the community, bringing advice and tips to Cobb veterans.
“The closer the better, for all of us. They have a wealth of knowledge they can give us, they have all the books. There are a lot of benefits veterans don’t know anything about,” Liemhop said.
The office in Cobb will attract more veterans than currently use the state’s veterans services offices, said Liemhop because of its close proximity to the county’s veterans.
“I had to drive to the Cartersville office to get a piece of paper saying I was a veteran so I could get a driver’s license,” said the Acworth resident and member of the American Legion post 160 in Smyrna.
Gregory Widmer, a service officer at the Woodstock American Legion Post 316 said the Cobb office isn’t going to fulfill all veteran’s needs.
“It falls short of what we really need: helping the veterans from the beginning. That is small in comparison to what they really need in Cobb County,” Widmer said.