By SARA ARTHURS
Wednesday was opening day at the Hancock County Fair, which was exciting for many of the attendees. But it was special for veterans for another reason.
The Hancock County Veterans Service Office was one of the main sponsors for the fair Wednesday, along with Blanchard Valley Health System. Veterans were treated to free admission — a first this year thanks to a collaboration of the veterans service office, the Hancock County Veterans Council and the fair board.
Kyle Frias, assistant director at the veterans service office, said the partnership was a “great outreach opportunity for us.” Veterans were being encouraged to register with the veterans service office, and could get vouchers for free fair food once they did so. (Those who were already registered could get the vouchers, too.)
The office is particularly trying to reach younger veterans, and the fair is a good place to do so, Frias said. Younger veterans typically do not seek out veterans organizations immediately after returning home from service, as they’re busy with work or school. And they don’t start researching veterans health benefits until “things start hurting,” which is often later in life, he said.
Frias, 31, served in the Air Force in Colorado from 2007 to 2010. He said his fellow younger veterans often are receptive once they do come in contact with the veterans service office — the problem is getting to them in the first place.
Younger veterans “want and need different things” than previous generations, Frias said. And since social media allows them to keep in touch with the people they served with easily, they’re less inclined to reach out.
Nichole Coleman, Hancock County veterans service officer, said a goal in 2017 was to increase the number of veterans registered by 15 percent. In actuality, that number was increased by 54 percent.
Again this year, the goal is a 15 percent increase. Coleman’s office had already seen a 14 percent increase before the start of the fair.
Coleman said the long-term goal is to get half of the county’s veterans registered by 2022. There are currently about 2,100 local veterans registered, out of approximately 5,400 veterans living in the county.
Veterans who register with Coleman’s office can get information on local, state and federal benefits they might not know they qualify for. Wednesday’s program was so popular that her office ran out of registration forms and had to make more copies.
“We had two huge lines here at noon, when it started,” Coleman said.
The veterans service office also had a table in the merchants building, with information on local businesses that offer discounts to veterans, along with books about VA health care benefits and pamphlets about music therapy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Information about Battle Buddies, a program which pairs veterans with a “buddy” to mentor them, was also available.
The registration forms will be available at the booth in the merchants building throughout fair week.
Bill Johns is president of the Hancock County Veterans Council and a commissioner on the veterans service office board representing the DAV.
“It’s going great,” he said of Wednesday’s events.
He had been hearing from veterans glad that someone was recognizing them.
There was music and entertainment provided for veterans, “and then we’re all going down to the donkey races,” Johns said.
Proceeds from the donkey races at the fair were to benefit Flag City Honor Flight.
Executive Director Deb Wickerham was at an Honor Flight table in the Old Mill Stream Centre. She said it was good that veterans were getting into the fair for free: “It’s their day.”
Johns said he was glad to be able to talk to veterans, and to talk to nonveterans about veterans. And he encouraged some who passed by not to minimize their own service.
One veteran’s wife said he had “just” served in the National Guard. Johns replied, “Don’t ever tell me ‘Just the National Guard.'” Regardless, you are still a veteran, he said.
Johns said the work of supporting veterans is rewarding and “just gets better all the time.” His hope is veterans’ presence at the fair, too, will continue to grow.
“I just hope we get more veterans out here every year,” he said.
The veterans service office can be reached at 419-424-7036.