He spreads the word on veterans' right to benefits

The Baltimore Sun

Al Hernandez screens phone calls to his Ellicott City home these days because cancer surgery nearly destroyed a muscle in his right thigh two years ago and he tires of rushing, cane in hand, to grab the handset.

Callers hear the Vietnam veteran's taped instructions about leaving a message, followed by a cheery "Semper Fi!" and a rousing recording of a few bars of the Marine Corps hymn.

While his sign-off is the abbreviated form of semper fidelis, which is Latin for "always faithful," it would have been easy for the 58-year-old Marine to lose faith after a series of health setbacks left him unable to work and in considerable pain, he said.

But there is one cause to which he is unwavering in his commitment: helping veterans get benefits they might not realize they are entitled to.

"I'm like a bulldog when it comes to this - I just won't let go," said Hernandez, who is service officer for VFW Post 7472 in Ellicott City. He has made information-sharing his personal mission since discovering his own eligibility for benefits several years ago.

The Wheatfield resident practically lives to share his knowledge with other veterans, approaching people with T-shirts or hats bearing military insignia to ask whether they know what they are entitled to from the federal government. He even keeps a stash of the 140-page current edition of Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents in his car.

A benefits fair that he organized will be held Saturday at the post on VFW Lane to inform veterans of all branches of the military about available assistance, said Hernandez. Service in a foreign war or post membership is not required to attend.

A series of unrelated events led to the diagnosis of Hernandez's service-connected cancer, which is now in remission.

A former police officer in Prince George's County, he was forced to retire in 1993 after 20 years' service when he ruptured two discs in his back trying to thwart of pair of youths attempting to break into a Goodwill store, he said.

Then nearly a decade later, his life was upended again. An MRI scan after a 2002 car accident revealed a cancerous tumor on his pelvic bone. The grapefruit-sized mass was deemed the result of exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used to kill jungle overgrowth during the Vietnam War. Hernandez, who served in the Marines from 1968 to 1972, was stationed in Phu Bai in 1969.

The veteran underwent surgery to remove the tumor in 2003. But two years later, the soft-tissue sarcoma recurred in the same place. So, in 2006 surgeons removed most of his right psoas major and iliascus muscles, which together extend from the spine across the front of the pelvis and into the upper thigh, he said. That operation weakened his right leg, which he now works to strengthen with physical therapy.

In between all that, Hernandez happened to attend an informational day in 2004 at the post on VFW Lane and discovered benefits he didn't know he was entitled to as a veteran.

"Al seems to be a caretaker by nature, and he is definitely concerned about helping his fellow veterans," said Pamela Miller, assistant veterans service center manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore.

"He sees there's an obvious need and is working very hard to fill that void," said Miller, who will speak at Saturday's benefit fair.

But she also pointed out that the information veterans need is "easily and readily available" on the veterans affairs Web site at www.va.gov or by calling 1-800-827-1000. Letters were sent recently to assisted-living facilities and nursing homes throughout Maryland in an attempt to reach more veterans, she said.

"From our perspective, you didn't have to serve on [foreign] soil in a period of war to deserve compensation," Miller said, noting that veterans often express the point of view that they're not deserving. "Each file represents someone who served their country so that we may live with the freedoms we have today."

As for Hernandez's own eligibility, he is working now to increase his benefits.

The VFW service officer had a 100 percent disability rating until May, when his cancer went into remission and his rating was dropped to 50 percent, he said. He is currently awaiting a decision from the VA as to whether secondary complications from cancer will qualify him to return to full disability.

In the meantime, he is concentrating on fellow veterans who may be ignorant of their eligibility.

Hernandez speculates that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are in such a hurry to reunite with their loved ones that they fail to apply for benefits they may need farther down the road.

Hernandez has been posting fliers in local businesses to drum up attendance on Saturday. Last year's fair drew 70 veterans, and he hopes to double attendance this year, he said.

"We share his drive and urge to help," said Miller, who hopes the lodge will be filled. "We are here to take care of those who have taken care of us."

Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

VETERANS SERVICE BENEFITS FAIR

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: VFW Post 7472, 4225 VFW Lane, Ellicott City.

For: All veterans

Program: Representatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans of Foreign Wars State Service Office, Social Security and the Alzheimer's Organization will provide information on all benefits available to current and prior-service veterans. You do not have to be a member of the VFW to attend. Representatives' presentations will be followed by a question-and-answer period. Informational brochures and handbooks also will be available.

Information: Al Hernandez, 410-465-1801.

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