I-TEAM INVESTIGATES: Veteran Relief Fund in Benton County - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

I-TEAM INVESTIGATES: Veteran Relief Fund in Benton County

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 I-TEAM INVESTIGATES: BENTON COUNTY, WA - For years a state law being misinterpreted locally could have left our veterans without access to the emergency funds they need.

In one case this past year a veteran was wrongfully denied the funds he says he needed to get by. NBC Right Now has been following along with this veteran and his appeal process. Roy Rosalez first messaged us back in September with a concern.

He believed local veterans were being turned away from emergency funding they needed and that he was one of them. After months of research digging through paperwork and bringing his concerns to the attention of Benton County officials we found a problem that could hurt men and women who fought for our country.

"It really boggled my mind and it made me feel a little bit unworthy," explained Rosalez. "Why am I being denied such a simple service?"

A simple service but one he needed at the time. It started at the Kennewick VFW back when they were still accepting applications at that location. You submit your application and you either get the funding or you don't, or in this case those tax dollars aren't put to use in a way they're intended to.

"When I asked them why am I denied these benefits I told them I have an honorable discharge. They said it's because I did not meet my initial military obligation."

Rosalez was only one month shy of his four year's of service before his commanding officer released him. His obligation ended there. The state of Washington legally defines a veteran with multiple definitions. You meet one or the other and you're legally considered a veteran and able to access the funds. But, that's not how it worked in Benton County.

"Fellow veterans stating that they were following rules and regulations."

But the wrong way; Pat Powell had lead the Veteran's Advisory Board (a group designated to help manage the fund) for over a decade. He even wrote a letter to a Washington legislator when he questioned the law. Powell thought a veteran had to meet both legal definitions. He also thought the honorable discharge in this case didn't warrant what he referred to as “entitlement”.

"Sorry, you're not eligible because this is how we interpret the RCW. How could someone sit there, especially another veteran and say, 'Sorry Mr. Veteran, you're not qualified.'"

REPORTER: "These people on this veterans advisory board, they're just citizens?"

"That's correct,” explained Linda Robb, the head of Benton County Human Services and the team now tasked to administer the fund, “but that's why we have them to advise us on what the decision is and we take that advice very seriously. If they feel that someone doesn't qualify then we usually take that advice and move forward with that."

REPORTER: "What if they were wrong in this case?"

ROBB: "If they were wrong in this case then we would make every effort to rectify that."

Rosalez had used the fund back in 2010 he had no issues. So when he applied again this past September why the sudden change?

"If someone was served in the past that was not eligible now then that must have been an error in the past. That's really all I can say about it," said Robb

REPORTER: "So you think it was an error in the past and not an error currently?"

ROBB: "Mmhmm."

Rosalez decided he wanted to appeal the decision, not just for himself but also for a number of other local veterans who could be in the same boat.

"How long and how much more do other veterans like myself who are being, let's say discriminated against or choosing from are going to suffer when we are in need?" he asked.

Benton County commissioners recently heard both sides at a special hearing and after noticing the mistakes made they granted Rosalez his appeal.

"A veteran is a veteran in my eyes. It doesn't matter if he lives in a mansion or he lives in a cardboard box. We all served. There's a brotherhood and we need to respect that," said Rosalez.

Because of his hearing and the concerns he brought up, the Benton County Commissioners will work to change the policy of the Veteran Relief Fund to make sure the money ends up going to the people who need it.

Rosalez is not the only veteran who felt discriminated when they applied for the fund. Since NBC Right Now first broke this story we've already heard from others.

The county admitted this was a miscommunication and commissioners pointed out that the appeal process really did work in the end. After they made their decision they wished Mr. Rosalez the best of luck as he moves on to further his education.

Much of these issues stem from a transition in the Benton County. Human Services only took over control of the fund within the past year of and their administrator has only been on the job since about July.

The fund and the work of the local VFW has still helped so many of our local vets. In 2014 about 115 veterans were given over $64,000 in total assistance. That money is collected through a property tax levied by the Benton County Commissioners. Washington state law requires each county to maintain it's own veteran fund. 

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