Caitlin and Ray Jula moved to the Upper Valley from Tennessee last year to get a fresh start. And it started well enough.
Ray, who saw extensive combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, landed a good-paying job with Sturm, Ruger & Co., the firearms manufacturer in Newport. That meant Caitlin, who grew up in Sutton, N.H., was no longer the family’s primary breadwinner. She could devote more time at home to the couple’s infant daughter, Rachel.
But shortly after starting his new job, Ray experienced breathing difficulties connected to smoke damage to his lungs that occurred during combat. Ray’s time as an Army infantryman also left him with a body “full of shrapnel,” his wife told me. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, as well.
The good things they’d heard about the VA Medical Center in White River Junction were a big reason why they made the move from Tennessee.
While Ray, now 41, was being treated for the first time at the VA’s emergency room for his breathing troubles, someone there referred him to Project VetCare.
The Hanover-based nonprofit organization has only been around for a few years, but it’s already earned a reputation for helping veterans navigate the federal bureaucracy in their quest to receive benefits.
The feds don’t make it easy. Veterans fill out the paperwork, but if they don’t dot the I’s properly, their requests for medical, disability, pension and other benefits can be denied.
That’s where Project VetCare, which has a private attorney at its disposal, comes in.
“Many veterans are very proud and don’t like asking for help in the first place,” said Project VetCare Chairman Robert Chambers, a Vietnam veteran. “If they get denied (for benefits), they stop trying.”
Project VetCare has assisted more than 300 veterans in New Hampshire and Vermont in collecting benefits that they might not have known they were eligible for or didn’t know how to secure.
The organization also helps veterans with the basics. I’m talking housing and food.
After Ray Jula’s health hit a speed bump, he couldn’t hold a full-time job. Project VetCare “stopped us from becoming homeless,” Caitlin Jula told me.
On Monday, I met Caitlin by happenstance at Project VetCare’s small second-floor office in downtown Hanover. She had stopped for coffee with Mindy Paquette, who manages the office, when I dropped in without an appointment.
Caitlin told me that Project VetCare had paid for her family to stay at the Residence Inn in Lebanon for a month. Next, it found them a house near the VA Medical Center and covered the first month’s rent.
“They were there for us through a lot of hardships and difficulties,” she said. “They were a godsend.”
Project VetCare, which has an annual budget of $200,000, relies on private contributions. And fundraisers such as the one this upcoming Sunday evening at the Hanover Inn.
The “Honor the Heroes” U.S. Marine Corps Birthday Ball was started a half-dozen years ago. (The Marine Corps is celebrating its 240th birthday this month.)
It’s a night of dinner and dancing that’s expected to bring in a total of $25,000 for Project VetCare and the Semper Fi Fund, a national nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to injured and critically ill veterans from all branches of the military. Former Dartmouth President Jim Wright, who enlisted in the Marines when he was 17, serves on Semper Fi’s board.
Hanover would seem an unlikely place for Marines decked out in their “Dress Blues” to be raising money. It might be a company town, but it’s certainly not a military one.
I asked Rusty Sachs, the driving force behind the event, about that.
“Americans are really tired of wars, but even in left-leaning places like this, people know that it’s unfair to blame veterans for what’s going on in Washington,” he told me.
Sachs, 71, grew up in Norwich and was a Marine helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. A Harvard graduate, he became a lawyer and served one term in the Vermont House as a Democrat.
He’s aware that many veterans who call the Upper Valley their home have struggled over the years. They need organizations such as Project VetCare to step in from time to time so they’re not “getting evicted from their homes and having their cars repossessed,” he said.
In 2011, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed piece by Linda J. Bilmes, a Harvard faculty member, and Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Columbia University economic professor who co-authored the book, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict .
“History has shown that the cost of caring for military veterans peaks decades after a conflict,” they wrote. “Already, half of the returning troops have been treated in Veterans Administration Medical Centers, and more than 600,000 have qualified to receive disability compensation. At this point, the bill for future medical and disability benefits is estimated at $600 billion to $900 billion, but the number will almost surely grow as hundreds of thousands of troops still deployed abroad return home.”
The taxpayers will ultimately bear the financial costs, just as Ray Jula and his family bear the physical and social ones — with a little much appreciated help from Project VetCare and its supporters this Sunday in Hanover.
Jim Kenyon can be reached