Eighty-nine-year-old Don Wentworth admits to being a little slow on the uptake when it came to getting benefits from the federal government’s programs for veterans, even though he’d served in the military for 30 years in active and reserve duty.
Ten years ago, he stopped by a new place called the Whidbey Veterans Resource Center in Freeland, just a tiny office with a pool table and meeting room.
A woman named Judith Gorman had encouraged him to drop by. Soon, she got him signed up for health care benefits with the Veteran’s Administration.
“She got me approved for medical care, then I got approved for PTSD disability,” Wentworth said. “I didn’t even know what it was, but I had it. So 70 years after I left Guam, I finally got the benefits I was entitled to.”
Wentworth is now one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers at the Whidbey Veterans Resource Center when it comes to digging through paperwork and matching vets with support and services.
“It’s like a stewardship or responsibility for those of us who can help to share the information and help people get access to benefits they’re entitled to,” said Dana Sawyers, Air Force veteran and coordinator of the center now located at the South Whidbey Community Center.
Island County has the highest number of veterans per capita in the state — estimates range from 14,000 to 17,000 — so there’s still plenty of people to find and help, she said.
Lucas Jushinski, owner of Island Herb, helps in his own way. For the third consecutive year, he’s donated $10,000 to the center’s annual fundraising campaign with a challenge to the public to match it by June 30.
“Lucas wants to make sure that veterans are supported on the island,” said center board member Chris Thorsen.
Jushinski —- who spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, including time spent embedded in a marine unit in Iraq —- came to South Whidbey struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and depression.
In a previous interview with the Record, Jushinski said he’s now in a position to help the vet center and other nonprofits organizations that once helped him.
In the past two years with generous community donations, the dreams of expanded services for Whidbey’s veterans has finally come true.
“We’ve more than exceeded our own hopes,” Thorsen said. “Transportation, counseling and information and reference services have all happened.”
A weekly van provided by Island Transit RideLink provides weekly shuttles to Seattle’s VA clinics. While the van is loaned to the center, it still needs to pay for gas and ferry crossings.
Of late, a few Vietnam vets have reached out who were exposed to Agent Orange, Sawyers said. She also received a call from a young woman who lived out of state but needed to find help for her favorite uncle on Whidbey Island.
Sawyers encourages people, veterans and non-veterans, to find out about volunteering at the center.
“We can teach you about the forms and benefits,” she said. “And the people you’ll meet will be worth the paperwork.”
The center was founded in 2009 by Judith Gorman, a clinical social worker, and her husband Perry McClellan of Langley, who were seeking local services for their son, Orrin Gorman McClellan. He suffered from many invisible wounds of war after serving in Afghanistan in 2005 -2006, his mother said, and sought an alcohol-free location close to home to connect with other vets as he received treatment in Seattle.
Orrin Gorman McClellan committed suicide nine years ago. A talented, creative and sensitive writer and artist, his parents just released a book of his personal writings, “A Soldier’s Journal, Last Supper to No Goodbye.”
Professional mental health counseling is now a free, regular service of Whidbey Veterans Resource Center.
Jeff Rogers, a Navy veteran whose service included tours in Vietnam from November 1968 to November 1969, has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and has worked at the Portland Vet Center, Bellingham Vet Center and Washington Department of Veterans Affairs.
Retired, he’s volunteering his time at the Whidbey center, even though he could get reimbursed.
“Veterans and family members come in to see me most commonly for PTSD, depression, suicidal thinking, substance use and struggles in their marriages,” said Rogers.
“I am seeing both male and female veterans ranging in age from mid-20s to early 80s. I am seeing veterans from all eras including World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and even veterans who haven’t been deployed. I can also see active-duty members.”
Some stigma still exists about seeking counseling, Rogers said, especially for military veterans.
“That is very unfortunate because counseling usually is very helpful for PTSD and related issues,” he said. “Most veterans are healthy people with high values having normal reactions to abnormal experiences.”
Regular support groups for men and women meet weekly at the center. Companionship, some say, is one of biggest benefits of a space devoted to people who truly understand one another.
“The support of the group is the biggest advantage of the WVRC,” Wentworth said. “I can walk in there with a problem and I always walk out with solutions or advice others suggest.”
• For more information on services, volunteering or donating funds, see www.whidbeyvrc.org or call 360-331-8081.