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Veterans Information and Referral Office opens in Conyers

A poster promoting the Veteran Information and Referral Office hangs on the door of Muriel Whaley's office at American Legion Post 77 in Conyers.

A poster promoting the Veteran Information and Referral Office hangs on the door of Muriel Whaley's office at American Legion Post 77 in Conyers.

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Muriel Whaley displays some of the materials she distributes to veterans at the American Legion Post 77 Veteran Information and Referral Office.

Muriel Whaley served in the Air Force from 1974 to 1987, and then went on to work for the U.S. Postal Service for 17 years. A back injury left her unable to continue her job at the post office, and she struggled to care for her three children, with no health insurance and no income.

Fortunately for Whaley, a friend and fellow veteran suggested she apply for benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I thought I wasn't eligible (for benefits). It never crossed my mind," Whaley said. "I had no idea what to do or how to get it done."

She completed forms via the Web and earned health insurance and disability benefits.

"It really made a big difference," Whaley said.

Whaley is now volunteering to guide other veterans through the process of applying for benefits, through the newly established Veterans Information and Referral Office, housed at the American Legion Post 77, 674 Legion Road in Conyers.

Open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Tuesday, the VIRO is designed to provide information to veterans and their families about eligibility for VA services, show them how to enroll for health care, and assist them with the application process to obtain the benefits they earned, including medical, education, disability and burial.

"We are a gateway to getting the services they need," said Whaley, the service officer for Post 77. "We let them know what the VA has, but we can't make any promises."

Whaley said that often it's the older veterans, from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, who have never signed up for services. Recently, she helped a widow of a World War II vet apply for benefits.

"That's my job. That's my responsibility," Whaley said. "If I don't know the answer, then I find it."

Ronald Hackney, transition patient advocate of the VA Southeast Network, said about a dozen VIRO offices operate in Georgia, some at American Legion offices, others in local government buildings, all staffed by local volunteers. Hackney said that Rockdale and Newton have a significant number of veterans who haven't enrolled for benefits. Out of the estimated 15,000 veterans in the two counties in 2011, about 10,000 weren't enrolled.

Often, veterans are intimidated by the process because it appears too complicated or the veterans don't want to drive all the way into Atlanta to the VA office, said Hackney. Getting them to make that initial contact is the key.

"The goal is to not have individuals who don't seek services because it's too far," Hackney said. "We're streamlining the process, taking out the guesswork."

The first VIRO location opened in McDonough in 2008, and since then VIRO has assisted 1,380 veterans.

"It's been a great response. It's been working well," Hackney said. "The numbers are continuing to rise. It means we're doing something right."

For more information, call the American Legion Post 77 at 770-483-8216 or visit the post during the VIRO operation hours listed above.