If you served with Diane Malone in the Army or the Reserves, if you live in her neighborhood, be warned: Next time Malone sees you, she will ask you to help keep the PCMARVETS’ mobile field office on the road.
Founded last year with a $125,000 grant from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the non-profit veteran’s outreach purchased a 1997 Ford Fleetwood motor home, computer equipment and hired Erica Westling as veteran case manager. They take the office to parts of Pierce County that do not have easy access to Veterans Affairs resources. From senior centers and food banks to nursing homes, gun shows and homeless encampments, they offer veterans the expertise and materials to file claims for benefits they may have earned.
It is noble work, Malone said. It is necessary work.
And now, after a year of traversing the county at $100 per tank of gas, PCMARVETS is facing the end of its funds. If it cannot raise enough to keep it on the road, the non-profit will have to park the mobile field office.
Malone was the first to step up. She brought a check for $100, plus a case of water and rolls of paper towels, to the Tacoma Weekly offices. She had hoped she was just one in a stream of donors. After 22 years, she knows what it means to be part of the military family.
“I was a Reservist for 13 years at McChord with an air medical squadron, and nine at Camp Murray with an 85-bed MASH hospital,” she said.
She found a meaningful, challenging, rewarding life as part of what she considers her military family.
Some veterans never experienced that sense of support, and she wants to do what she can to help PCMARVETS connect them to their benefits.
“They’re out there hiding,” Malone said. “When I go hiking by Wilkeson, I see these homes, very modest, almost camps with the American flag and the POW flag, and I think that a lot of them are veterans.”
An acquaintance told her, “My mom and dad would be doing fine without having to pay $1,500 for their meds each month.”
The father, she learned, was a veteran who, as he said, “only did one hitch” and did not think he had veterans’ benefits.
“I took him to the VA, and now the meds are down to $300 a month,” Malone said.
“I met a vet who was panhandling,” she said. “He told me ‘I can’t go to the VA. They told me I can’t use it because of my alcoholism.’ I told him I would drive him there myself.”
That’s how she is. She doesn’t advise people to contact Veterans Affairs. She takes them to the office to fill out the claim. She knows they have been given buckets full of misinformation over the years.
Many have told Hight that when they left the service after fighting in Vietnam, their sergeants told them they were not eligible for benefits because they were drafted, only did one tour, were not technically veterans, and so on.
“The misunderstanding just goes on and on,” Hight said. “We know those veterans are out there, in nursing homes, unable to travel, far out in the woods. We find them and go to them. More than 300,000 were wounded. How many more were unidentified as wounded? Twenty years ago, they were told Agent Orange didn’t hurt anybody. They were treated terribly. They didn’t want to go back. Those are the ones we are pulling back into the fold now. Often compensation will make the difference between homelessness and a respectable lifestyle.”
The veterans are not the only ones who have benefited.
In the year Westling has been working out of the field office, she has met with 500 veterans and brought them more than $4 million in benefits they earned.
Think of that as a local stimulus package paid for with service to America. These veterans are putting that $4 million straight back into Pierce County’s economy. They have paid off debts, bought groceries, clothing and reliable vehicles. Some have been able to purchase modest homes, and some have steady rent money.
Malone is happy to have helped support the effort. But she had a criticism.
The Tacoma Weekly, at 2588 Pacific Highway, is the main donation center, but if you don’t know we’re in the Walt’s Muffler parking lot just down Pacific Highway from the Harley dealership, we can be hard to find. And some people are wary of making financial transactions on-line, even at the non-profit’s website at http://www.pcmarvets.com.
Malone suggested a direct donation account at a popular bank. Hight and Westling agreed. They have set up a PCMARVETS account at Columbia Bank. Don’t make Diane Malone have to drive you there.