Vancouver couple fight for veterans

Proctors provide free services at Veterans of Foreign Wars Service office

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer

Published:

 

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There are times when the only thing standing between a homeless veteran and one with a roof is Debra and Roger Proctor.

On a recent morning, Sidney Jackson waited outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Service office in Vancouver.

A large, white three-ring binder was on his lap.

When the doors to the office opened, Jackson, 65, who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1973, took a seat in Debra Proctor’s office.

Jackson had a letter from Veterans Affairs alerting him he would no longer be receiving money he’s come to depend upon.

“I’ve been getting a disability check since 2008, and all of a sudden they dropped this on me,” Jackson said.

Debra Proctor didn’t waste any time.

“Do you have a cover letter?” she asks Jackson.

“No.”

“How about discharge papers?”

Jackson shuffles through some papers.

“Show me what you got,” she says.

Proctor’s demeanor is calm.

This is what she does: help veterans, widows and families of veterans navigate the complicated bureaucracy of Veterans Affairs.

The Proctors, a husband-wife team, are advocates, diplomats and veterans themselves. Technically, their titles are Veterans of Foreign Wars-accredited service officers.

They have a reputation for being good, and it seems to be based upon a basic understanding: they care.

“By caring, we don’t accept the standard of ‘Well, we tried,’ ” Roger Proctor said. “I tell every single person, ‘Here is what I would do if I were you.’ ”

And here is what they do: In the past five years, they estimate they have helped recoup about $170 million for the region’s veterans in back pay, disability or widow benefits.

When they don’t have an answer, they find someone who does. A real person, too, not an automated voice.

“There is so much paperwork. … It’s hard to stick with it, when you get the run-around, we cut through that,” Roger Proctor said.

On an average day, they estimate anywhere from 40 to 60 veterans cycle through their tiny two-room, windowless offices. Their services are free.

“There are people out there who are illegally charging veterans for the same services we provide,” Debra Proctor said. “The only people that can actually charge are attorneys. … If someone wants to charge you $700, that’s a scam.”

Jackson’s letter from Veterans Affairs alerts him he doesn’t qualify for disability because he had a bad conduct discharge.

“It was under honorable conditions, a general discharge,” Jackson said. “I’m thinking there’s a snafu. I understand they are busy and they are backed up, but don’t scare me like that.”

Within about 20 minutes, Debra Proctor assures Jackson he won’t be sleeping on the streets.

“It will be OK,” she said.

It’s not the first time she’s seen this situation.

“Paper mix-up,” she said, casually.

Jackson’s body language changes immediately.

“Like I said, Roger and Deb can do anything. … Honey, it was looking like a couple of more weeks and I was living in the street. I feel like everything is going to be fine,” he said.

But Jackson knows he will be back. Like the other veterans sitting in the hallway waiting to see the Proctors, they are usually repeat customers.

“Someone sitting at a desk somewhere says he has a bad discharge, and they didn’t see another (updated) one,” Debra Proctor said.

The couple don’t deny it can be frustrating work.

“It’s fun. Sometimes, it’s stressful when they walk in. The husband left, the female veteran has no funds, no place to live. … We see some of the bad stuff and help them look for the best,” Roger Proctor said.

As one veteran waiting in line to see the Proctors said, it’s as if within Veterans Affairs, the “left hand doesn’t talk to the right hand.”

But the stories the Proctors hear keep them motivated.

“I had a prisoner of war walk in and ask for help, and I was like, ‘prove it,’ because that’s right up there. … He was told a long time ago if he applied for benefits, they would take away his retirement, so he never applied for anything,” Roger Proctor said.

The majority of veterans the couple works with are from the Vietnam War, often the post traumatic stress is delayed and catches them off guard.

“Their thought process starts kicking in, a lot of things they buried a long time ago start cropping up. … We get some very decorated people in here, they are busy, busy, so their brain stays focused and as they retire, they need help,” Roger Proctor said.

A lot of the veterans waiting to see the Proctors said they never expected to have to spend time after their service battling for their benefits.

But in this fight, it’s nice to know someone is in their corner.

“They are dedicated,” said Ray Loney, 61, of Washougal, who served in the Navy.