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Millions in bonuses remain for Ohio veterans

Clark, Champaign service members have received nearly $830k from state bonus program.

Veterans from Clark and Champaign counties who served during the first Gulf War or the War on Terror have received more than $829,000 since Ohio voters in 2009 approved tax-free bonuses for their service, state records show.

But with a total of $200 million set aside for the Ohio Veterans Bonus, there’s plenty of money left for the taking, according to Mike McKinney, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services.

“It’s not federally taxed. It’s not state taxed. It’s free money,” McKinney said. “It’s a great way for Ohio to say thanks to those who served. They volunteered to serve in a time of war.”

As of last week, slightly more than $55.4 million had been paid to 65,977 Ohio veterans or their families, McKinney said, adding that they’re pleased by the response so far.

Clark County has had 903 veterans or families collect $631,439 in bonus money since the state began making payments in August 2010, he said, and 254 Champaign County veterans have received $197,758.

If veterans served 90 days of active duty between Aug. 2, 1990, and March 3, 1991, or after Oct. 7, 2001, all they have to do to get the money is apply.

Veterans of the Persian Gulf War, however, need to do so before Dec. 31, when the bonus expires for them. Veterans of the Iraq War have until Dec. 31, 2014.

A cutoff date for veterans of the war in Afghanistan won’t be set until after the conflict officially ends.

Veterans who served in-theater receive more — up to $1,500 per person, regardless of how many combat tours served — but the bonus is available to all who served during the eligible periods. Veterans must be current Ohio residents and also must have been a state resident at the time of entry into the military.

Crystal Baker, a 2002 graduate of Northwestern High School, only found out about the Ohio Veterans Bonus in April, but immediately applied.

She said she received notification last week from the state that she’ll be getting $500 within two weeks.

“If I didn’t know about it, I know there are other people out there who don’t know about it,” said Baker, 29, who began her new job a month ago as a benefits support clerk at the Clark County Veterans Office. “I’ve been racking my brain about who else I could tell about it.”

An Air Force veteran who served from 2003 to 2006, Baker spent that time stateside at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, guarding some of the nation’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

That made her eligible for a bonus of $50 per month of service, up to $500. Her money is going straight into savings, she said.

Bonuses also are available to the families of deceased veterans. Family members of veterans killed in action are eligible for a $5,000 bonus, in addition to what the veteran would have received.

It’s difficult to know just how many Ohio veterans might be eligible for the bonus, McKinney said, but he guessed the number exceeds 100,000.

The state has a history, going back to at least World War I, of awarding bonuses to veterans of recently ended conflicts.

Bonuses for earlier veterans have all long since expired, McKinney said. A bonus for the state’s Vietnam veterans, for example, expired in 1977, he said.

The state’s department of veterans services has a small ad budget, McKinney said, and has tried to advertise the current bonus statewide.

“Does that mean we’ve reached everybody? Of course not,” he said. “We want everyone to know about it.”

Kevin Smith, a Springfield resident and 1989 graduate of Kenton Ridge High School, heard about the bonus while deployed to Kuwait in 2011 with his Columbus-based Army Reserve unit.

Smith was no stranger to that region, having deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the Reserve and having seen combat with the Marines during Operation Desert Storm.

When he heard from a buddy about the Ohio Veterans Bonus, he admittedly was skeptical.

“Mom always said if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Smith, 42, said. “I took that approach to it.”

As he put it, “No one gives away money.”

But, he looked into it and applied for the bonus in November 2011. His $1,500 was directly deposited into his bank account two days before Christmas that year, he said.

“There were no hassles,” Smith said. “The next thing you know, the check’s in the bank.”

Smith said the money helped make his first Christmas back home a bright one.

“This is from the grateful citizens of Ohio to those who volunteered to serve in time of war,” McKinney said. “It’s real, and it’s a great deal.”

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