Clark, Champaign veterans claim $1.1 million from bonus program

Ohio pays $73.5M since program began in 2011.

Veterans in Clark and Champaign counties collected more than $1.1 million from the Ohio Veterans Bonus program, and Iraq veterans have claimed the highest number of bonuses statewide of any eligible era in recent years, state data shows.

What’s more, while Ohio voters authorized selling up to $200 million in bonds to pay for the program, the state sold and set aside $83.9 million in bond by a December 2013 constitutionally imposed deadline, officials said.

In Clark County, more than 1,200 claims resulted in payments of more than $866,000 for veterans. The numbers for Champaign County were 350 claims for nearly $260,000.

More than 90,000 claims have paid a total of $73.5 million to Ohioans, as of this month, state figures show.

Today, there is $5.3 million left for veterans to claim. Part of the money was used for advertising and administrative costs, among other expenses.

Veterans who served in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but were on active duty at the time of the conflicts, have filed the second highest number of claims — around 19,000, according to Beth Deck, Ohio Veterans Bonus program manager.

Voters passed the bond measure in November 2009, and the program launched the next year.

Years later, many veterans often are unaware of the bonus until they are told about it, said John Bolen, a Clark County veterans services officer who helps former service members file claims for benefits.

“A lot of times we bring up ‘Have you applied for your bonus yet,’ and they don’t realize it (exists),” he said.

The program has tapped newspaper and broadcast ads and social media to find veterans, but word of mouth is one of the most effective ways to reach veterans.

“One of our greatest advocates are family members, friends and neighbors,” Eileen Corson, a spokeswoman at the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, said.

They spend the bonus on moving expenses, education, car loans down payments on a home, among other places, Bolen said.

“As many reasons as people have to spend money, veterans use the bonus for,” he said.

The state determined to cap the program at $83.9 million by the deadline based on claims history and the expectation U.S. troops would pull out of Afghanistan in late 2014, officials said.

“The decision on how many bonds to sell by the December 2013 deadline was based on past history and trends in applications combined with the national military strategy at the time,” Corson said in an email. “We always want to be a responsible steward of the public dollars and only incur amount of debt needed to meet the needs of our military men and women.”

President Barack Obama had called for the pullout of American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but that tour of duty was extended for thousands of service members because of the resurgence of the Taliban in the country. The state’s veterans program payouts are scheduled to end three years after the president has declared an end to hostilities in that country, language in the Ohio constitution says.

Seth Gordon, director of the Wright State University Veterans and Military Center, said the presence of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and the regions affordability, may explain why Montgomery County outpaces other counties in Ohio for bonus payments.

“People come here and they want to stay here because the cost of living is affordable and they like living in the area,” he added.

The bonuses could be an incentive to veterans to stay and live in Ohio, which like other northern states has lost population. “Anything that will keep people here is goo for the state, period, and therefore good for universities,” he said.

Veterans may collect up to $1,500 in individual bonuses. To be eligible, a service member had to have been an Ohio resident since Oct. 7, 2001 — the first day of the war in Afghanistan — and had an Ohio residence at the time they claimed the benefit, officials said. A deadline has not been set since President Obama has not yet declared an end to hostilities.

Bonus deadlines have passed for Iraq and Persian Gulf veterans.

Caroline Bier received a $500 bonus while still in the Marine Corps in Virginia. She joined the Marines while in Ohio and was still a resident of the Buckeye State, making her eligible for the bonus, she said.

“I was still on active duty so I had income but it’s always beneficial to receive additional compensation,” said Bier, now the director of the Butler County Veterans Service Commission in Hamilton.

Veterans could receive a maximum of $1,000 if they served in Afghanistan or $500 if they served elsewhere. The money is tax exempt, Deck said.

Families of a service member killed in action, missing in action or a prisoner of war, may claim up to $5,000, Deck said.

The state saw the most applications in 2011, the first full year of the program, she said. Over the decades, the state has awarded bonuses to veterans of other wars, too.

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