DAV Ardmore chapter finds temporary home

Michael D. Smith
Asbury United Methodist Church on Wednesday. The church has become the temporary home for the Ardmore chapter of the Disabled American Veterans after the pandemic closed its regular location at the Ardmore Veterans Center.

Service members all had their own unique experiences in the military, whether they served a few short years as an enlisted member or made a career as an officer. Once discharged, however, many of these men and women share in the struggle of receiving their military benefits.

Many former military members in Carter County could often rely on the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, a nationwide nonprofit that helps connect veterans with an advocate to help them navigate the benefit system. But thanks to the pandemic, the services were mostly unavailable throughout the summer.

Steve Foster, a service officer for the Ardmore chapter of DAV, said his office at the Ardmore Veterans Center was effectively shuttered once nursing homes and long-term care facilities were closed to the public early in the pandemic. Beginning in March, the DAV found itself without a home.

“I had to make arrangements to even get into my office to get the computer and whatever else I needed out of the office. We just simply had no place that we could sit down and talk to the veteran,” Foster said on Wednesday. 

“For a couple of months, I wasn’t able to help anybody and nobody was calling me because they didn’t have my phone number,” he said.

Thanks to members of his church, the Ardmore chapter of DAV again started helping retired service members secure their benefits. For a few hours every Tuesday and Thursday, Foster is able to sit down with veterans at Asbury United Methodist Church and help them file disability claims or request documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Perhaps most importantly, these veterans do not simply receive help from a bureaucrat but from a peer.

Foster served in the U.S. Navy for two decades. As a veteran of the Gulf War in the early 1990s, he said he went years before he learned that a persistent ringing in his ears was service-related and made him eligible for benefits.

He has since been certified to help other disabled veterans and their families file disability claims, receive health care or pension benefits, understand employment rights or even receive money for college.

The Oklahoma DAV dates back to 1930, is funded exclusively through membership and donations, and does not charge veterans for any of the services offered. More than 48,000 veterans in Oklahoma utilized the services offered by the Oklahoma DAV in 2018, according to an annual report.

The group estimates that more than 337,000 Oklahomans have served in the military but less than a third of them are taking advantage of benefits. Foster is one of about 140 service officers in the state and hopes that more veterans will look past any stigma associated with asking for help.

“I’m trying to get as many veterans to come see me as possible. They earned it, just like I did, and they deserve it,” Foster said.

Even though Foster is back in a location after six months, the local DAV chapter still faces challenges. While the group has access to a van that can shuttle veterans to the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System, the van’s driver recently retired. Foster may know the ins and outs of navigating the veterans’ benefit systems, but he still has to use his personal cell phone as a wireless hotspot while helping veterans complete online tasks.

But even with the challenges of 2020, Foster did not appear deterred from his mission. Considering all of the stress that may be associated with the job, Foster said the hours he spends with fellow service members is therapeutic.

“A lot of the veterans may not have any health care available to them, as far as they know. It allows me to help get them into that medical system, and I love being able to do that,” he said.

Veterans and their family members can receive services each Tuesday and Thursday from 9:30 a.m. until 12 p.m. at the Asbury United Methodist Church at 516 Maxwell St., or call (580) 504-4568 for more information. Foster said no appointment is necessary for one-on-one assistance.