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Veterans Affairs: ‘Misunderstanding’ sends local vets to Horry office

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Natrenah Blackstock, Georgetown County’s veterans service officer, says she’s hoping for a good crowd next month at a meeting to explain changes she’s made to her office operations.

She said there have been “kinks and misunderstandings” with veterans recently, and she wants to assure them that their needs will be met at the Georgetown County office at 537 Lafayette Circle.

The office was moved to the former Red Cross headquarters last year after the Board of Elections and Voter Registration took over the building on Hazard Street the two agencies were sharing.

In addition to the move, changes in procedures have caused a number of Georgetown County veterans to travel to Horry County for service.

Wendell Allen, Horry County veterans service officer, said his office’s visits have increased drastically in the past few months. “We saw 8,000 people all last year,” he said, “and 1,400 in January.”

Though he met with Blackstock and the Georgetown County personnel director, Greg Troutman, recently after a number of letters of complaint were mailed, Allen didn’t want to discuss any differences in the two offices or to appear critical of the Georgetown County operation.

“Each officer runs the office the way they want to,” he said.

The Horry County office does not require an appointment for any of its services, according to a message on the agency’s answering machine. Veterans are told to arrive early and expect to wait at least an hour.

The Georgetown County office asks vets to make an appointment to file claims regarding compensation, deaths or pensions. Other requests are met for clients as walk-ins.

Blackstock said sometimes veterans who are denied benefits will re-file requests in another county. County offices only accept applications, she said. Benefits are approved or denied at a higher level.

In any event, she said, she sees some of those Georgetown County veterans coming back to their home office from Horry.

Blackstock said there’s been a “gross misunderstanding along the way” about her motives, starting with the elimination of the traditional sign-up sheet on a clipboard. Veterans at the Georgetown County office now sign an individual sheet and give it to the receptionist so their information remains private. “With a clipboard,” she said, “people can see other names. It’s a privacy violation. There are Social Security numbers visible, and they check off the services they came in for.”

Blackstock said some veterans have said they can’t understand why they have to fill out a form every time they visit the office.

She said the form allows the receptionist to determine if she can assist the veteran immediately or if they need to make an appointment with Blackstock or her assistant. All are properly trained, she said, but some veterans only want to talk with the veterans service officer. They worry that they won’t receive the same level of attention, she said.

Blackstock said converting to an electronic filing system has also caused concern. She was surprised when one of her clients felt Blackstock wasn’t listening because she was focused on her computer. The man was used to seeing the veterans services officer writing with pen and paper while he spoke. He didn’t understand that Blackstock was electronically entering his information.

“That’s what a lot of the uproar is about,” Blackstock said. “They don’t see any paper on the desk, so they think we aren’t paying attention. Really, we just don’t do paper applications any more.”

Many veterans don’t realize the benefits they are due, Blackstock said. Disabilities from injuries on active duty receive high priority for care. Veterans from Vietnam and Korea are becoming eligible for pensions, and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are eligible for unemployment and education benefits. Unemployed and under-qualified veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 with an honorable discharge may qualify for 12 months of schooling. Veterans in their 20s may qualify for work-study programs under the Montgomery GI Bill.

Blackstock said she has a master’s degree in counseling and is trained to spot problems. One veteran who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic was actually suffering from combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and got the proper care, she said.

Blackstock issued a standard operating procedure manual last year that detailed her expectations of employees as far as hours, the professional appearance of the office and a dress code.

The office opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Employees have 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon and an hour for lunch. The office no longer closes during the lunch hour.

Any items on display must have authorization, and anything on the walls must be approved, framed and hung by Georgetown County maintenance personnel. No tape or tacks are allowed on walls or doors.

Dress code is business attire. No jeans are authorized. Women’s hair will be neat in appearance with only natural colors allowed. “No yellow, green, pink, etc. dyes in the hair is authorized,” the manual says. Men’s hair must be neatly groomed. No extreme or trendy haircuts are permitted. Men will have a neat shave as well, it says.

Fingernails must be neatly groomed with no extreme length or colors authorized.

Instructions include a script for answering the telephone properly, protocol in the reception area with staff members ordered to be conscientious at all times.

The meeting to explain the office operations will be March 4 at 5:30 p.m. in County Council chambers.

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