Island programs help veterans during difficult times

Multitude of support services available for vets who need assistance with food, transportation, therapy, and more.

Dukes County sheriffs perform a ceremony in Oak Bluffs for Veterans Day in 2019. This year, a scaled-down ceremony was held because of COVID.

The coronavirus has affected everyone in the Island community, but since many veterans are disabled or in financial straits, they need additional support.

Fortunately, there is a strong support network available for veterans on-Island, both through the Dukes County Veterans Service Department, and the Veterans Service programs offered by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS).

Bob Tankard, veterans outreach coordinator and veterans advocate for MVCS, said his job is to identify the folks in need here, and find ways to fill those needs. “It could be financial, it could be housing, it could be educational, like learning how to use certain technology,” Tankard said. “It could be showing folks where they can get help outside of our organization.”

With COVID making it potentially dangerous for susceptible populations (older folks or those who are immunocompromised) to go to the grocery store on a regular basis, Tankard said, he and others who are part of the outreach program will often go buy groceries for veterans who can’t leave the house. Some veterans are also not able to drive due to a disability, so Tankard said his group of volunteers and he provide transportation to medical appointments and other necessary transportation needs.

“Our older vets, some of them won’t go out because of the coronavirus. I will deliver food once a month to help them out,” Tankard said. 

He said the outreach program also supplies veterans with food cards to Stop & Shop or Reliable Market, “especially for those vets whose ways of living have been affected by COVID, and they either can’t work or can’t afford to buy groceries.”

Tankard gave a shout-out to veterans who volunteer for the outreach program and assist their fellow veterans in any way they can. “It’s really all about helping out your brother and sister veterans. If you know of someone who needs assistance, reach out to them and let them know about what we do,” Tankard said.

Tankard noted that some of the resources that are available to veterans off-Island aren’t available here, such as dedicated transitional housing, or a veterans’ resource center that serves as a one-stop shop for veterans’ needs.

He said these are things that veterans’ support groups are looking into, and hope to have in the future.

According to Tankard, there are about 250 veterans identified on the Island. “There is a huge community of veterans here, and they all support each other. We don’t work with every vet, but we are here for anyone who needs us,” Tankard said. 

One important element to the outreach program is making people aware of the services they qualify for. “Not only do we provide the services for vets, we let them know what programs and services they can utilize, because there are lots of people who aren’t aware of everything that is available to them,” he said.

Tankard said MVCS applies for grants and receives donations to assist in veterans services, and there are some public events, like a road race taking place on Saturday, Nov. 7, starting at 9 am at the Right Fork parking lot of South Beach, that raise money as well.

For veterans, connection is another important piece of the outreach program.

Tankard said he normally sends out an email blast every Monday to veterans, letting them know what services are available, and touching base to see how everyone is doing.

“We always encourage people to call each other and just chat and check in, especially for people who are living by themselves,” Tankard said. He said there will be a Veterans Day service held in Ocean Park at 11 am, and he has emailed all the veterans, letting them know to show up with a mask and social distancing. 

Tom Bennett, director of veterans’ services for MVCS, said one of his main roles is to provide therapeutic services for Island veterans. He holds a weekly group Zoom meeting for veterans who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Bennett also helps veterans file for disability and other medical claims so they can receive compensation or assistance. “[We work with] people filing PTSD claims or any other medical forms, like for Agent Orange exposure or Gulf War Syndrome, by way of getting compensation for the damage that was done to them during their service,” Bennett said.

Currently, Bennett said he is working with Tankard and others to identify emergency and long-term housing for veterans. “Our focus is on the vets, to see if there are any grants available, so if we have homeless veterans we can get them somewhere where they are safe and out of harm’s way,” Bennett said.

Bennett stressed that if veterans have questions about what services they qualify for, they should reach out to MVCS or to Veterans’ Service officer Bruce Montrose. 

Paul Shultz, a veteran and volunteer for the outreach program, said he has diabetes caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his service in the Vietnam War, and had an emergency surgery caused by colon cancer.

“I have to be very careful, and the services that Community Services and the Veterans’ Affairs office provide are very helpful for me — they are helpful for all the veterans here,” Shultz said.

Shultz said he has been helping Tankard and Bennett out whenever he can by driving veterans to appointments, or delivering groceries to them if they are homebound.

Shultz said the services offered on-Island have helped him receive more comprehensive disability coverage, and made him more aware of the support systems available to veterans. “Tom [Bennett] helped me immensely by helping me find out that I suffer from PTSD and have a traumatic brain injury. He helped me submit the paperwork, and the VA jumped me up from 30 percent disability to 50 percent disability,” he said.

Another important aspect of the veterans services on-Island, particularly during COVID, is the line of communication it provides between fellow veterans. “We always try to check in with each other and make sure everyone is doing all right. That type of connection is so important. Sometimes I will suggest that folks get in on the weekly calls with Tom [Bennett]. A lot of folks don’t even realize they could utilize some of these services, so we are trying to get the word out to the entire community,” Shultz said.

Dr. Monty VanBeber, a family medicine specialist out of Hyannis, comes to the Island every week to provide service to veterans. He said he originally started coming here in 2012, when there were around 300 veterans receiving care. Now, VanBeber said, that number has dropped to around 180 veterans. VanBeber travels to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital twice a week to engage with veterans directly. Being a veteran himself, he said, helping folks navigate the often complicated health system is something he values greatly.

“Each time I go to the Island, I see anywhere between 12 and 25 vets in about a half a day,” VanBeber said. He added that as veterans get older, it becomes necessary to conduct home visits. After he is done with his clinic at the hospital, VanBeber travels with a nurse to hospice patients and homebound veterans, and provides them with treatment, whether it’s a checkup or a physical therapy appointment.

“I sometimes bring my physical therapy equipment over with me: stuff like rollers and walkers, and I actually train people right there in their homes,” VanBeber said.

For things like prescriptions and other clinical services, VanBeber said, Bennett will refer patients to him, and he will connect those veterans with the resources they need. “I have created lots of services through a bridge mechanism, such as Suboxone groups and groups focused on quitting smoking. Some things that the Island might not have readily available,” VanBeber said. 

When the mail system fell apart on the Island this past summer, VanBeber said he created a bridge program that provided short-term medication prescriptions until veterans could get their full prescription in the mail.

For services that cannot be acquired directly on-Island, VanBeber said, he can connect veterans to the right people who can fill those needs. 

“There are certain things I can’t get directly to the Island, like I can’t get a neurosurgeon to the Island, but I can direct veterans to the right person in Boston,” VanBeber said.

Visit the Veterans Services page at MVCS for more information, or reach out to Montrose at 508-693-6887.