Clarion Co. Veterans Affairs boss wears ‘many hats’

Judy Zerbe – the director (and only employee) at the Clarion County Veterans Affairs office – is waging a one-woman battle against homelessness, depression, suicide and illness.

“In this job you wear many hats,” said Zerbe. “You have to be a doctor, a counselor, a grief counselor and even a mother to some of the younger vets.”

In Clarion County, Zerbe serves about 3,400 veterans. About 8 to 12 percent are women. Each one has their own problems, and it is Zerbe’s job to address those problems.

One of those problems is the suicide rate among veterans.

In 2015, there were 230 veterans suicides in Pennsylvania, one-third of the veteran-suicide rate in the northeastern U.S. Clarion County has experienced seven suicides by veterans in the last five years.

“That is seven too many,” she said.

Zerbe said the suicides are not specific to one age group.

“We had one who was a Korean War veteran and two who were peacetime veterans,” she said. “I have been in the office for 24 years and I know we have had more than that.”

Some of those veterans, she said, had terminal health issues.

Another problem Zerbe faces is homelessness among veterans.

In 2016, there were a reported 1,600 homeless veterans in Pennsylvania, the eighth-highest total in the nation.

“Not all homeless live under bridges,” she said. “Some live in their cars. I had one gentleman who wanted to live in his car. He was only staying here for a short time. You can’t make them want to get help. If that is the case, I try to refer them to food banks so they get proper nutrition.

However, according to Zerbe, there aren’t a lot of homeless veterans in Clarion County.

“Most of the guys I get coming into my office are ‘couch-surfing.’ They don’t have a place of their own,” she said. “They will sleep on a buddy’s couch for a week and another buddy’s house for a week, or they will live with their daughter because they can’t afford an apartment of their own.”

Zerbe said there are solutions.

“The VA has the HUD-VASH program that is a housing program for veterans that actually helps them find housing, and they will help pay for that housing,” said Zerbe, the mother of two veterans.

“We do not have a coordinator for that program in Clarion County because our need was not great. If I have a veteran who is homeless, I call the Butler VA Hospital and they will give us a voucher for Clarion County. I have had several veterans who have used the vouchers.”

There are mental health issues among the veterans of Clarion County. Zerbe said help is available for them.

“We have tele-counseling through the local clinic,” she said. “A veteran can go to the clinic and they will be placed in a private room where they can talk with a psychiatrist from Butler. The veteran can also go to Butler and talk with the psychologist in person.

“The local clinic is basically a maintenance clinic. It is similar to an urgent care facility. A veteran can go in there if they have a cold or the flu and they can give you something.”

One of the major services provided by the local VA office is for health care. The closest VA hospital is in Butler. For major procedures, a veteran must travel to an urban facility, such as the one in Pittsburgh.

“We handle a lot of service-related injuries. We need to change our list of presumptives (symptoms) because we are seeing multiple veterans coming in with the same symptoms that are not on the list of presumptives yet,” she said.

“The best known is the Vietnam era Agent Orange presumptive, but a recent one is from Camp Lejeune water (Jacksonville, North Carolina) that affected Marines.”

A change that is pending is for veterans to use the local urgent cares and pay the same co-pay they would pay at the VA clinic.

“That would be a big help because there is no VA hospital locally,” she said.

Another new program will cover “blue water” sailors who served on ships within 13 miles of shore. Many Vietnam era sailors had been excluded from receiving Agent Orange benefits. The ruling was issued on Tuesday. Zerbe filed her first claim on Wednesday.

A highly publicized shortcoming in the VA system was the long wait to gain access or service.

“It is actually pretty quick right now,” said Zerbe. “If I put someone in the system today, the clinic is usually calling them within two weeks to schedule an appointment.

“If they are applying to a hospital it is usually 30 days. We don’t have the problems the big cities have. We do very well with getting our veterans scheduled.”

The Clarion County VA office is in charge of filing for federal benefits, including compensation for wartime injuries or illnesses and pensions that is a need-based program for veterans or their widows.

“Most of the pensions we file for are for people going into assisted-living facilities or nursing homes,” she said. “Pensions are based on income. The VA has a set guideline for that. There is one for the veteran and one for the widow.”

Also, Zerbe said, there is a compensation program available for veterans.

“The first thing people think of when they hear VA compensation is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because that is out there in your face,” she said. “We do have PTSD cases in Clarion County. I would say it is equal to the actual medical condition cases.”

The VA office handles state benefits.

“There are programs through the state that help veterans. The state has an education program that helps when you are going to school,” she said.

“The state has the Veterans Temporary Assistance Program, so that if a vet should be ill or laid off for a while and money has gotten tight we can file for up to $1,600 for them.”

There is also a family-assistance program.

“If the veteran is deployed and they are having financial issues she can come in and apply through her husband for the program,” said Zerbe.

The state also offers a property tax-exemption program. Only veterans who are 100 percent service connected disabled are eligible.

“In Clarion County we do have a lot,” she said. “The income guidelines were increased this year and that opens the exemption for more veterans.”

Zerbe also handles claims for the county.

“The county is basically funeral benefits,” she said. “The county will pay $100 for the burial and $75 toward the widow.”

Veterans who pass away are entitled to the free government marker. The county will pay $100 toward the installation of the marker.

“The state wants us to get out in the community more because there are a lot of veterans we are not reaching,” said Zerbe. “You can do newspaper ads, radio ads or Facebook ads, but there are vets who don’t participate in those things. We are still missing a lot of veterans in Clarion County.”

For more information, call (814) 226-4000, ext. 2601.