Giving veterans a voice

Former Navy sailor takes over as Moffat County veterans service officer

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Former Navy seaman Bill Harding believes the veterans of Northwest Colorado need better access to health care and to get it, they need to be vocal.

"If there are only two voices, that won't be enough," he said. "Let's get vocal in Northwest Colorado, then we'll get more help."

It's Harding's job to see area veterans have a voice and many times, he is that voice.

Harding took over as the Moffat County veterans service officer in March and already he's created quite a stir.

"The county's already saying that if he's caused that much trouble in 30 days, what else is he going to do," he laughed.

Harding's push for health care so area veterans don't have to drive 150 miles to receive needed medical attention has been taken to Washington. But much to the dismay of veterans and others in Moffat County, Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., shot it down fast.

That doesn't mean Harding's ready to stop.

He encourages local veterans to write letters and register with his office so he can show there are enough veterans in the area to warrant a local health care facility to serve them.

"We need to be able to document how many veterans we have here," he said.

Enrolling with a veterans' service office may not only result in better local health care services, it might get them services -- wherever they may be located.

Because of congressional cutbacks, enrollment is being closed to veterans who never registered. This "priority aid" puts the focus on low-income veterans and those who have been injured in connection with their service.

That could create a problem for a generation of veterans whose health care plans through their employers are ending as they retire, leaving them to seek veterans' benefits that may not be available to them.

"We don't see them until they need health benefits," Harding said. "We don't see them until it's really critical and then they can't get an appointment for three to four months."

Enrolling now, even if health care benefits aren't needed, also speeds up the process when other benefits are needed, Harding said.

The first thing he does is protect and file a veteran's discharge papers.

"That way, when they need benefits, we have the document in hand and we don't have to wait a year to get a copy," he said.

Harding, 58, is a Vietnam-era veteran. Luck provided that the destroyer he served on wasn't deployed to where the fighting occurred, although there were many times that it could've gone either way.

After hearing another serviceman's views on the war, Harding joined those who didn't support it, a feeling that intensified when that friend was killed fighting.

Although he didn't support the war, he wholeheartedly supported the troops.

"I thought they got a raw deal in how they got treated by the government and how they got treated by the people when they returned," he said. "It was a sore spot."

It took several years for that sore spot to manifest into active service to veterans. Harding was honorably discharged in 1972 -- four years after joining. He tried his hands at several trades and it was the longest run of those that brought him to Craig.

In 1976, Harding moved to Moffat County to work with Trapper Mine on the environmental reclamation staff. He did that for 18 years until cutbacks had him looking for work in other places. He worked as a meter reader for Yampa Valley Electric Association, was a detention officer at the Moffat County Jail, worked in customer service, was a rural carrier for the post office and started his own weed abatement company.

Through those transitions, he was a member of Craig's Veterans of Foreign Wars, and it was there he met former veterans' service officer Bill Frye.

"He asked me if I wanted to be his assistant," Harding said.

He began work in October of 2001, working primarily to serve veterans in Rio Blanco County. His service as Frye's assistant has made taking over the job a smooth transition, he said.

"Bill has done such a great job for so long serving this area's vets," Harding said. "He trained me fairly well."

He intends to carry on the services Frye began, but streamline them and make better use of technology to accomplish them.

"I'm not going to back off on what services Bill started, I'll just see if I can tweak them," he said. "I have the same desire as Bill did to help local veterans and their families."

His top priority is to establish a veterans' hospital in the area. Barring that, he's working on a clinic, which means getting the Veterans' Administration to OK area doctors providing services to veterans.

Harding thinks a new hospital and the community college's nursing program could both benefit area veterans.

"It could tie together if all parties are talking and getting coordinated," he said.

Harding is also working for better transportation. Last year, the Moffat County veterans service officers drove 19,000 miles getting veterans to and from health care facilities. Harding believes a better transportation system could eliminate those miles, leaving the veterans service officer to do his primary job -- working to get veterans all of the benefits to which they're entitled.

Like medical care, Harding says he has to show a need for that service and again asked all area veterans to enroll so he can show those numbers.

Harding's passion for his job is evident in his voice.

Harding has seen a shift from primary clients being World War II veterans to Korean and Vietnam veterans.

"We've been very fortunate, we haven't seen any from the Iraqi conflict in this office," he said.

Harding plans to serve area veterans for a long time, though he doesn't know if he'll come close to Frye's 18 years of service.

His wife, Sandy, has worked as a nurse for the Moffat County School District for 25 years and wants to retire -- when the time comes -- to Grand Junction.

"I love Craig," Harding said. "I could live in Craig the rest of my life, but my wife thinks it's too cold."

Until that time, he'll keep encouraging veterans to fight for the benefits to which they're entitled.

"They've earned them," he said. "It's not a privilege. They've earned them for serving our country during a time of war."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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