History of Veterans Advocacy Services
Though most of us are to some degree aware of the crisis among veterans – the substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment – we often remain unaware of how veterans become mired in isolation and alienation. But the story of how Margaret ‘Peggy’ Matthews was compelled to create Veterans Advocacy Service is a window onto this reality: the day-to-day lives of our nation’s military veterans.
Peggy met her first veteran client in the late 1990’s while a practicing Social Worker. Neither she nor that veteran, Mr. Edward Smolinksy, had any idea what they were about to embark upon. It was not long before Peggy was a central figure in Ed and his wife Kathy lives in the effort to obtain benefits Ed had earned but could not obtain.“It became a daily thing, faxes, phone calls, correspondence with Peggy” says Kathy. The dilemma at hand was Ed’s service in Vietnam and the physical and psychic damage he had suffered there. “We were together twenty-five years, and we spent those years trying to obtain benefits for Ed . . . our experience with the system was a nightmare, and Ed spent his life living that nightmare. Until we met Peggy.”
Peggy began a long apprenticeship in advocacy fighting for benefits and services to which Ed was both entitled and so badly needed. She recalls that “for 3 or 4 years I spoke to Ed on a near daily basis. There were eight boxes full of documents and records, stretching back to 1969, that chronicled Ed’s service and his decades-long attempts to get help with his injuries.” It took more than four years but Peggy’s efforts finally brought his appeal to a hearing before the Board of Veterans Appeals where Peggy argued on his behalf. She was successful and the Smolinskys received a significant settlement that made Ed’s final years more comfortable.
Ed, however, did not live to see the proper conclusion to his case. Edward Smolinsky died in 2008. He was only 56 years old. Some 8 months later Kathy received a letter which described how, at long last, the federal government had concluded that Edward in fact had been one hundred percent disabled, that his condition was ‘permanent and total’ and that the heart disease that killed him was likely a result of his exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange while in Vietnam. Kathy says that, at bottom, what Ed wanted first and foremost was to hear those very concessions, and is certain they would never have been obtained at all but for Peggy’s determination that never flagged, even as the fight lengthened through months into years. “Peggy is one-of-a-kind. I knew I could call her any time, any day; she didn’t give up even when I felt that I had to. ”
The daughter of a career Air Force officer, Peggy’s childhood was a series of brief pauses at air bases across the country. She learned early the importance of self-sufficiency, initiative, and perseverance. Without forming any distinct or deliberate plan for doing so, her education roundly prepared her for the advocacy she would undertake as her life’s work. Peggy studied biological sciences at Wellesley College with her thought being to attend medical school. Instead she attained a Master of Social Work from Boston University. She is also a trained and certified paralegal. She says
I am always staggered, and frustrated, by the sheer number of veterans who have found obtaining veterans benefits impossible largely because of the conditions and events of their service. They worry about immediate concerns like keeping their job and paying the rent while they try, for instance, to complete research on the nature of their disability and try to link it to what happened to them during their service… Add to that an element such as – and this is not untypical – being afraid to use public transportation or ride in a car because of trauma associated with landmines or improvised explosive devices.
For over ten years now, veterans have found their way to Peggy through word-of-mouth, veteran-to-veteran referral and, in their circles, she has become legendary. She helps any veteran who comes to her, and veterans from every state and even abroad have engaged her services.
The hundreds of veterans I have helped have been alike in one central respect; all of them needed a full-time advocate. They needed a person who would do anything necessary – perform research, interview childhood friends, prepare legal or medical briefs – to bring the disparate elements into a coherent whole. In other words, we usually have to research and present the veteran’s life story because events that occurred years or decades ago shaped all that came subsequently. Any challenge the veteran struggles with – medical, legal, situation, or social – must be understood in context and as part of a continuum.
With increasing numbers of veterans finding Peggy, she needed an organization to serve them all – this is why Veterans Advocacy Service was created.
On this Memorial we would like to take a moment to Remember those brave men and women who have perished in the line of duty, and to those whom we have lost from the hidden wounds of war. Lets us HONOR their service with RESPECT.
HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY!!