Richard Reed fights to help the government keep its promises to veterans
LEICESTER — “You’re a pain in the butt,” Richard Reed’s boss once told him. “But you’re doing something important.”
Decades (and perhaps a few ruffled feathers) later, Reed still approaches his work with an ever-changing ratio of skepticism and hope, but his persistence has remained constant and the work he does today is just as important as it was when he began:
Reed, who lives in Leicester, advocates for Vermont’s military veterans.
Reed describes his job this way.
“I would wake up and say, ‘I get to fight with the federal government today,” he said with a chuckle.
Reed served in the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area command in Thailand and Hawaii during the Vietnam War and finished his service on the New England Atlantic Coast.
“As vets we all have different experiences,” Reed said. “But one thing we all have in common is basic training. It’s effective at stripping away personality and teaching you to obey orders, yes, but it also teaches people to look out for the other guy. More than anything, that’s what we all carry away.”
Reed has been looking out for Vermont veterans since 1991, when he began working as a Veterans’ Employment Representative at the Vermont Department of Employment and Training (now Labor). An eight-month economic recession had just ended, but employment recovery was sluggish, and as Reed looked around he saw that his clients lacked not only jobs but homes.
“You started seeing a lot of homeless vets,” he recalled. “It became a real problem.”
Typical of his “see a problem you can fix, fix it” mindset, Reed asked himself, “What else can we do?”
With a few like-minded individuals, he found an answer: Friends of Veterans of Vermont and New Hampshire. He helped found the organization in 1994 with the mission of helping fellow veterans and their families avoid homelessness. That organization is still going strong. Over the last five years, according to its website, Friends of Veterans has financially assisted more than 300 vets with more than $160,000.
A few years later, Reed attended the meeting that chartered the Vermont post of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Chief among that organization’s goals has been to “hold government agencies accountable for following laws mandating veterans health care,” which in part means helping Vietnam vets navigate the convoluted benefits system maintained by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“I discovered the problems there were much greater than I had known,” Reed said. “I was talking with vets who had given up on the VA system.”
So, when the Vermont legislature in 2004 created a state service officer in the Montpelier VA office, Reed applied for and got the job. The work consolidated his employment and volunteer advocacy in one place. It also allowed him to do more one-on-one work, which was the most important part of his work.
“The goal was to have a service officer come within 40 miles of the residence of each and every vet in the state — at least once a month,” he said.
In 2005 he signed up for Facebook to reach out to younger veterans who were communicating mainly through social media.
“Afraid I drew the line at Twitter,” though, he said.
In 2011 Hurricane Irene launched one of the busiest periods of Reed’s career as a VA service officer, as claims related to post-traumatic stress disorder went up dramatically.
“It pushed some people over the edge,” he said. “Or their spouses finally dragged them in (to the VA offices). Spouses are a great resource.”
Not only was Reed helping vets file claims with the VA but he was also distributing emergency money through his office’s discretionary fund.
“People would call us and say things like, ‘My fuel tank just floated away,’” he recalled.
In spite of all his work, there were some people in the statehouse who weren’t convinced Reed’s position was “necessary,” he said.
So he confronted the House Military Affairs Committee with a VA application — “28 pages, including instructions.” The government claimed the forms required only an hour and a half to complete. Reed begged to differ.
“Many vets were just throwing it away and walking off,” he said.
Something so simple as helping them fill out the forms was an indispensable service.
In the end, not only did he preserve his job as service officer, but he went on to become Veterans Services Director, establishing two more service-officer positions. During his term he filed more than 1,700 claims in Vermont and in his final year, 2014, secured more than $5 million for vets and their families.
Though he was proud of the numbers, expanding the state’s service-officer program was perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career, Reed said.
“The need for that will never go away — not in my lifetime, anyway. Not as long as we continue to fight wars.”
Even in retirement Reed continues his work. As an accredited veterans’ claims agent (a sort of freelance gig) he specializes in appealing rejected VA claims, which, he noted disapprovingly, are on the rise.
“Vets can’t go in there and scream and yell at the VA or they’ll have the police called on them,” he said. “But I can get away with it. (Plus I know all the cops that work at the VA anyway.)”
The most difficult part of his work involves representing the spouses of veterans who died by suicide, Reed said.
According to a report released this year by the VA, 20 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States, and the rate is increasing.
Reed told the story of one widow who was so traumatized by her husband’s death that she was incapable of explaining her situation to the VA.
“I can’t go over it again,” she told Reed as she handed him the paperwork.
Reed shook his head at the recollection.
“We don’t know the answer to this, but we have got to figure something out,” Reed said, shaking his head.
If he could wave a magic wand, Reed said, he would ensure that each and every vet got one-on-one help.
“The best way to help people is to talk to them.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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