Johnson added to veteran services

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 28, 2014

The newest addition to the county’s busy veteran services office is a 20-year Air Force veteran who served during the Gulf War.
Rick Johnson, 55, was brought on as a part-time officer about two months ago to assist longtime Veteran Services Officer Elaine Howle in providing a myriad of resources for local vets.
Johnson received two associate’s degrees, one in electronic systems technology and the other as a mental health technician, from Community College of the Air Force.
Johnson then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications from Connecticut School of Broadcasting.
Prior to becoming a veteran services officer, Johnson worked in sales and marketing as well as being a political liaison and talk radio show host at WSIC.
In order to be certified as a part-time officer, Johnson said he has to work a minimum of 20 hours a week.
“My background works pretty well,” Johnson said. “My father is a 30-year veteran. I’m a 20-year veteran. My son did a tour in the Guard, and my grandson just came back from Korea. I kind of have veterans burned into me. All my experiences throughout my life have been veteran-related.”
Veterans need a person working with them across the desk who can relate to them and who shares a common background, Johnson said.
The Rowan County Veteran Services Department receives a variety of calls every day relating to all issues concerning veterans, Johnson said.
“We provide money, health, education and burial,” Johnson said. “Money comes in the form of disability compensation, and there also are pensions for those who are financially destitute.”
Last week, Johnson said a 94-year-old widow of a World War II veteran who lived on a meager social security check came into the office for assistance.
“You are able to help her have a comfortable life,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of fulfillment in that.”
The office is never going to be short on work because there always will be a long line of veterans who need assistance, Johnson said.
“It is not a one-person job. There is enough to keep two full-time people occupied, and then a part-time officer tied up just answering phones and filing paperwork from 20 hours to 40 hours a week,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he is required to log a certain number of hours a week for training as well as earning continuing education credits on a regular basis.
Although Johnson has taken and passed the national certification test for being a veteran services officer, he still has to take the state test — usually administered six months to one year after an officer starts.
“We’re one of the few jobs where, the harder we work, the more money we bring to the county,” Johnson said.
There are many veterans who have not filed for compensation although they qualify, Johnson said.
“If they are 100 percent disabled, by VA standards, that is about a $3,000 check every month,” Johnson said. “They are spending that money, by and large, right here in Rowan County.”
Johnson said if he processes one claim per month at a 100 percent rate, he essentially has paid his paycheck.
The office is averaging about 10 clients a day, and about 50 to 60 claims a week, Johnson said.
“There are going to be weeks when you have a lot more than that,” Johnson said. “With all the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans coming in the pipeline, we’re going to have a larger load.”
The Air Force veteran said his focus was on combat communications and ground radar systems through Operation Desert Storm, after which he was cross-trained to work in a hospital as a non-commissioned officer in charge of mental health, family advocacy and substance abuse programs.
Johnson also was the former talk radio show host of Paul Revere Media, but stopped when he became a veteran services officer.
“That was my private business. I dropped that when I started this job. You have appearance issues,” Johnson said. “Whether it is a conflict or not, you don’t want to give the appearance of a conflict. You can’t stop it, but I don’t want to give (anybody) any fodder. Anybody who has ever heard any of my interviews, on radio or television, and who is being honest can never say that I’m biased in one direction or the other.”
Also a member of the Rowan County Oath Keepers, Johnson said his affiliation with the group has no influence on his job as a veteran services officer.
“Oath Keepers is a group which honors the oath we swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. The oath has no expiration date,” Johnson said. “We have open meetings and everyone is invited to attend.”
County manager Gary Page said Johnson earns $15 an hour and works a flexible schedule.
“I’ve heard there were around 14,000 vets in the county. As long as (Howle) has been there, and her having worked at the VA for 13 years, I don’t know if she could handle the sheer volume of people coming in and out,” Page said. “We decided to look at a part-time position. (Johnson) is a vet and has been a schoolteacher with over 20 years in the Air Force. I think he brings the knowledge of the military and a professional attitude to the office. Having been a teacher, he definitely brings the smarts.”