EAST WENATCHEE, WASHINGTON – Grateful to be able to help! That’s how Sarahbeth “Sarah” Simonson describes her work with the Douglas County Veterans Assistance Program. As a former Air Force Staff Sergeant E-5, her mission now is to connect local Veterans who have honorably served their country with local, state, and federal resources to deal with personal hardships, obtain medical care coverage, and access other Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and programs.

image007Easier said than done; but no one is more motivated to fulfill the mission than Simonson.

The Douglas County Veterans Assistance Program began in January 2019 as a state mandate to connect Veterans with critical benefits, resources, and programs. Since the Office began, Simonson has led the day-to-day efforts – assisting more than 1,950 Veterans and Veteran’s families throughout Douglas County. “I am grateful to be able to help Veterans access things they’re eligible for – benefits they may not know about, or they may not have thought that they deserve,” she said.

As part of her role, Simonson helps her clients understand their federal eligibility for things like VA healthcare, pension, records support, and end of life planning in a welcoming, no-pressure environment. There is even a local Douglas County relief fund to help Veterans who have hit hard times with things like rent, mortgage, car payment, and more.

“Whether it’s a small Douglas County Veteran’s relief claim that will offer stopgap help for a couple of months, or a renewing, continuous benefit from the VA that will offer sustained support for their family,” said Simonson. “These benefits bring encouragement.”

Firsthand experience

Before working with the Veterans Assistance Program, Simonson had firsthand experience of what it was like to try and navigate the complexities of Veteran benefits as an individual. After serving overseas in the United States Air Force, she was wrapping up her time in active duty in 2004 when she started researching medical benefits options.

“My husband and I were expecting our first child, and we were figuring out what we’d do for medical coverage since he had recently finished active duty in the Army and was attending college full time,” said Simonson. Thankfully, an acquaintance told her that she could get healthcare from the VA before wrapping up her time in active duty so there wouldn’t be a gap in their growing family’s healthcare coverage. “That’s how I found out that I had benefits that I’d be able to access as a Veteran.”

Over the years, Simonson noticed many fellow Veterans were either unaware of the federal benefits available to them or unsure about how to navigate the system. When her family moved to the Wenatchee Valley in 2009, she soon became an active member of the Wenatchee Valley Women Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3617. Through these memberships, Simonson developed a passion for helping fellow Veterans apply for and understand their earned benefits.

“We’re all individuals and we all have our own experiences,” she said. “We may fall under a general umbrella of ‘Veteran’ but we’re still individual people working through a process that’s not designed for individuals.”

An increase in demand

image008Simonson has seen an increase in demand for the Veterans Assistance Office since the 2022 passing of the federal PACT Act, which expanded VA health care and benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances within combat zones. “Not only did the PACT Act increase the demand for claims, but I think more people became aware of the fact that this assistance exists to help with those claims,” she said.

“I am so excited when I get to see claims approved for Veterans,” Simonson said while acknowledging that it unfortunately isn’t always the case. “However, if we need to re-address a claim through an appeals process, I am here to guide clients through that process and to help them if they become discouraged.”

Simonson recalls one time when a fellow Veteran’s description of his active duty led her to guide him toward seeking benefits he didn’t know existed. “As he related his experience to me, I recognized it as a legitimate claim for the injuries he’d sustained in active duty,” she said.

“We did an intent to file, which is the first step to hold your place in line, and about a month before his intent to file was going to expire, he came in and asked me, ‘Are you sure it is worth it?’” Simonson recounts. “I told him, ‘Well, the worst-case scenario is we’ve wasted some time doing paperwork and you waste a couple of hours going to a follow-up exam.”

In that case it took the VA almost a year, but they ultimately decided in her client’s favor. “He was able to get the service-connected disability ratings that were appropriate for his conditions so it’s a financial benefit for his family.” According to Simonson, that came as a welcome surprise to the client. “He had closed that door.”

Veterans encouraged to reach out

Simonson wants every Veteran in Douglas County to know about the benefits they earned and the assistance that may be available to them. She encourages all Veterans to reach out to the Veterans Assistance Program, whether they are recently returning from active duty or have been retired for decades.

“Even if you don’t have any physical or behavioral health disabilities at this time, there are still some baseline benefits that you might be able to access,” said Simonson. “It’s always worth throwing out the question to someone who knows what they’re talking about and whose job it is to help you understand and navigate those processes instead of just taking the word of a family member, an old friend, or some random person on YouTube.”

The Douglas County Veterans Service Office is in East Wenatchee but several times a month Simonson packs up her laptop and supplies to take the Office on the road to Waterville, Bridgeport, Coulee Dam, and other locations within Douglas County for appointments with Veterans or family members seeking assistance.

When asked what motivates her work in the Veterans Assistance Program, Simonson said for her it comes down to the possibility of helping a Veteran and Veteran’s families. “One of my clients says that I ‘radiate possibility’ as part of my role. That possibility and hope is something that I appreciate being able to do for Veterans.”

Connect with the Veteran Services Office

To learn more about local Veterans services or to get involved, visit the Douglas County website or follow the Douglas County Veterans Service Office page on Facebook.