Story by Darl Devault, Contributing Editor
In Dale Graham’s short remarks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony on January 25 for the new larger location in Norman for the nonprofit Dale K Graham Veterans Foundation, he made everyone welcome. Speaking at the front doors at 1233 W Lindsey St., the Vietnam Veteran and retired U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal, 74, shared his pride in how far the group’s mission has grown.
“When I first started out helping veterans sign up for their benefits in my garage 30 years ago, I knew a lot of satisfaction in helping other veterans,” Graham said. “Now I know a lot of these great people gathered here today who have helped thousands in that same mission. We are all proud to welcome you to this new location.”
The foundation is named after Graham, who has dedicated his life to encouraging and helping veterans file their benefits claims. They serve more than 300 veterans each week with a 96 percent success rate for claims filed in 2019.
The main speaker, Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, told the crowd of 120 he is prefilling a bill aiding veterans for the new legislative session beginning in February. It will further emphasize that Oklahoma is a welcoming state for veterans, retired and separated from the service.
Pugh’s effort this session is Senate Bill 401, a carryover measure from last year, to exempt military retirement from state income taxes. He said this would keep Oklahoma keep in line with the surrounding states.
“According to our research at the legislature, Oklahoma has more per capita veterans than any state in the country,” said Pugh, a former U.S. Air Force Officer of almost eight years. “The legislature needs to do more in making sure our resources like this new Dale Graham Veteran Graham Foundation center are an example of how Oklahoma can be seen as the number one state for veterans.”
Pugh served as an AWACs command and control officer worldwide as an air battle manager as a captain. Before election to the Senate in 2016, he was an executive at Delaware Resource Group. There he oversaw the local aerospace company’s B-1 Bomber program, an extensive program with millions of dollars attached to it, he said.
Those gathered — veterans and their families, volunteers, veteran’s rights advocates, and Norman and Cleveland County officials, then saw Norman Chamber of Commerce dignitaries welcome the new facility and perform a ribbon-cutting ceremony. After the ceremony, 25 veterans waiting to be helped were invited into the new facility for their appointments with volunteers. On January 27, more than 50 veterans were helped. At the intake event on February 1, 150 veterans are expected to receive services.
The new location on west Lindsey is twice the size of the previous office on Interstate Drive in northwest Norman. The new office provides volunteers a training room and the veterans a computer lab where they can get online and scan their documents to complete their claims. The new computer lab has gone from 40 computer workstations in the previous office to more than 80.
Additionally, there is office space for private meetings. The new office means there is room for the volunteers to give the veterans more privacy as they assist them. This has allowed the Graham Foundation to increase the number of veterans they can help each day.
The Graham Foundation has assisted more than 25,000 veterans across all 77 counties in Oklahoma, 50 states, and eight foreign countries in filing claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Many volunteers help veterans fill out forms and submit medical or other documentation supporting their request for service connection to a disability or an increased rating on a pre-existing service-related disability.
Jonathan Foti, Graham Foundation CEO, spoke as master of ceremonies, saying their mission had outgrown their previous office because there are now about 330,000 veterans in Oklahoma.
The Graham Foundation’s seven full-time employees and nearly 100 volunteers help veterans apply for service-connected benefits. To do this, the volunteers have to go through continuing training programs. This ensures they keep current with Dept of Veterans Affairs policies as they change. In addition, the volunteers who are certified Veteran Services Officers have additional training requirements to maintain their certifications.
Most of their volunteers and staff recently attended the Joint Service Officer Training Symposium training from the Muskogee VA Regional Office and the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. The two-day event was held in Norman at the Oklahoma National Guard Training Center.
The Graham Foundation had teamed with numerous other nonprofits and service organizations to provide veterans with additional services, support, and counseling. This means veterans are better able to get the services they need. The VA application process is a dynamic environment that continually changes as rules, laws and federal policy change.
Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Chuck DeBellevue, president of the Graham Foundation Board, said, “Our supporters and volunteers have helped many veterans who never sought help in the past. While only a few World War II veterans still visit us, most of the veterans seen by the Graham Foundation are from the Vietnam War era, with visits from Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans on the increase.
This move will allow us to assist more veterans in more ways. You had to show up in person to receive our services in the past. Now you can get an appointment online and be seen virtually. Jon Foti, our CEO, has continually improved the processes and our efficiency. We are all proud to be a part of this effort to help those who served this great country.”
Veterans register online to start the process and are then contacted to schedule an appointment. Details about the next intake session can be found at Dale K. Graham Veterans Foundation | Our mission is to serve military veterans and their families. (dalekgrahamveteransfoundation.org)