It began when a Vietnam veteran died from a heart attack. His widow struggled with her grief, finances and raising four children on her own. She applied for assistance from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) but was denied. As a result, she and her children lived in poverty for 17 years.

Then she met Doris Kent, Veteran Service Officer and Coordinator with the Whatcom County Veteran Navigator Program. Kent says when she met the widow, “she had no running water, no toilets and she survived it all. She had raised four kids.” Kent’s boss told her that the woman wasn’t likely to be eligible for VA money. Kent tried anyway.

Doris Kent’s sons Justin and Jared Santos. Photo credit: Jessica Hamilton.

A few months later, the woman went to the bank, afraid that she was overdrawn. When the teller handed her a balance slip, she thought it was wrong. He assured her it was the correct amount and “she started crying right there in the bank,” Kent says. The VA had given the woman back pay from the original date filed 17 years before – all because of Kent’s relentless advocating on the woman’s behalf. Kent wonders, “If [the money] were with her the entire time, would it have made a difference for those kids?

Kent has made it her life’s mission to help veterans and their families make claims for benefits they don’t know they’re eligible for. She sees her own family in the veterans that come to see her.

Kent comes from a family of service members. Her father and brother “both died at age 52 from conditions related to Agent Orange they were exposed to in Vietnam.” Kent watched her mother struggle after their deaths, financially and emotionally. She wonders how her mother’s life might have been different if she had known about the benefits she was eligible for.

A photo of Doris Kent’s son Corporal Jonathon Santos. Photo credit: Jessica Hamilton.

Kent has three boys who all joined the army. Her son, Corporal Jonathon Santos, “went in on July 11, 2001 and then September 11th happened,” says Kent. Santos was hoping to earn his way through college with the GI bill. Exactly two months later everything changed. Three years later he was killed in a roadside explosion while serving in Iraq. Kent has dedicated her time to helping others like him. She honors his memory with every veteran she helps.

A patriotic metal sculpture salutes the flag in Ferndale. Photo credit: Jessica Hamilton.

“I have the Veteran Navigator Program I started in 2010,” she says. “I trained and worked with a group of volunteer veterans and family members to go and offer these services.” A group of eight volunteers host pop up information sessions all over Whatcom County once a month. Through this program, she has helped thousands of veterans and their families collect millions of dollars through Veterans Affairs. Kent additionally works as Veteran Benefits Specialist at Opportunity Council in Bellingham.

“The VA health care system is absolutely amazing,” she says. They’ll buy hearing aids, glasses, counseling, hospital stays, prosthetics, chemotherapy, etc. “Many of the veterans tell me it’s amazing and they feel really positive about their interactions and encounters in the VA health care system,” she says.

An American flag flies at night. Photo credit: Jessica Hamilton.

The hard part is getting them into the system and past mountains of paperwork. Many veterans suffer from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. They don’t understand each little box needing to be checked or how to fax in 70 pages of paperwork. One square filled incorrectly or form left out of the pile pushes back the start of benefits, sometimes indefinitely. Kent feels it’s her mission to help.

“I’m good with paperwork,” Kent says modestly. She wants to use this gift to take care of others.  She relives her son’s loss with each person that walks through the door and does it tirelessly although it doesn’t bring healing to her broken heart.

Kent has been diagnosed with complicated grief, rendering her unable to move on from the loss of her son. She tears up on several accounts of the struggles she’s heard from veterans.

She listens to each story, recounting that many “tell me things they’ve never told anyone before and that is really powerful.” People see in her a kind, deeply caring soul. Often veterans are homeless and have no voice elsewhere; they’ve alienated friends and family because of PTSD or other traumas.

Doris Kent poses with a photograph of her son Jonathon Santos. Photo credit: Jessica Hamilton.

“It’s not about just the money, it’s the healthcare and the acknowledgment of their service,” says Kent. She brought countless people experiencing homelessness in off the streets and gave them a kind shoulder to cry on. Paperwork is the least of her gifts. She is diligent, kind, compassionate and empathetic.

“I cannot rest until our county hires a full-time Veteran Services Officer,” Kent says. She’s hoping this position will be created by the Whatcom County Veteran Service Advisory Board. Full-time volunteers are stretched to capacity and need someone to fight for veterans permanently.

If you’re a veteran or family member in need, or would like to volunteer, attend a Veteran Navigator program. The next ones will be held:

September 8, Lynden Library  10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
October 13, Ferndale Library 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
November 10, Orcas Island School Library 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

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