By Rod Lee
Not all persons who hold the position of veterans’ services officer (VSO) are created equal. Some take their duties more seriously than others.
A visit with Robin L. Fletcher, VSO for the towns of Mendon and Upton, confirms that he is that rare individual who will go beyond in assisting and advising vets and their dependents in their attempts to obtain benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other agencies.
“I am only required to put in one hour a month in Mendon but I put in at least two to three hours a week because there is a different population there with different needs and I do more on-site visits there,” Mr. Fletcher said in the basement office at Upton Town Hall that he shares with other departments’ personnel as he looked ahead to Memorial Day observances. “I have taken a few to VA clinics in Worcester, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury and Providence.”
Long removed from his days with the U.S. Navy, retired from the state of Florida and the federal government, Mr. Fletcher is both a VSO and a certified SHINE counselor (for Serving the Health Needs of Everyone, an organization run by the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Elder Affairs). Fair-skinned with closely cropped white hair that would probably still pass military inspection for the length of the cut, he knows veterans’ issues inside-out and enjoys talking about them.
As evidence of this, when his interviewer mentioned having served stateside at Camp Lejeune in the 1960s, Mr. Fletcher immediately reached into a satchel containing several thick binders and pulled out a press release issued by the VA this past January. “Take a look at this,” he said. Datelined from Washington, the document outlines disability benefits that might be available to vets exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987. Vets diagnosed with adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder, kidney or liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or Parkinson’s disease may be eligible for certain medical benefits under the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act” passed in 2012—all because of volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethylene (TCE), a metal degreaser, and perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry cleaning agent, as well as benzene and vinyl chloride, found in two on-base water-supply systems. The systems were shut down in February of 1985.
Camp Lejeune is accountable, Mr. Fletcher said, “for one of the highest rates of male breast cancer in the world. Like Agent Orange in Vietnam and burn-pit exposure in Iraq. I have one or two Marines who are dealing with this, most [Marines] don’t know anything about it.”
Mr. Fletcher’s grasp of state and federal veterans’ legislation, regulations and procedures coupled with his willingness to help veterans and their loved ones obtain the assistance and benefits to which they are entitled make him one of the best VSOs around according to David Kennedy who is quartermaster of Upton VFW Post 5594. Mr. Fletcher takes such praise in stride while pointing out that “the federal programs we work with are broad in dimension, much more extensive than state programs…next of kin forms, medical release forms, it goes on and on.
“I never tell veterans whether they qualify for a benefit or not,” Mr. Fletcher said. “That determination is up to someone else. I just help them with the paperwork. I’ve had three applications this week to get people into the VA health system. I can get them in easy. If a Vietnam vet, they are a shoo-in.”
Whether helping sign veterans up for a state program like Chapter 115 benefits (run by the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, or DVS, in concert with local VSOs, these benefits are available to vets for financial aid for food, shelter/housing, clothing and medical care if their income is twice the federal poverty level and they have limited assets) or pushing as a member of the executive board of the Massachusetts VSO organization to get a bill passed requiring that all VSOs by certified and trained, Robin Fletcher is someone veterans can depend on. They know it, which is why his job involves more hours than he is mandated to put in.
Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.