Reaching out to veterans

Veterans Service Officer Norm Zelony offering support

Norm Zelony, a veteran himself, feels it is his calling to reach out to other veterans. (Star photo/Shanna Avery)

Norm Zelony, a veteran himself, feels it is his calling to reach out to other veterans. (Star photo/Shanna Avery)

LAKE COUNTY — Being a veteran himself, Norm Zelony, accredited Veterans Service Officer for Lake County, knows how important it is for veterans to be heard and to have a voice.

With about 1,100 veterans living in Lake County, according to census data, Zelony is filling a need to make sure local veterans receive the benefits and resources they need. Since beginning his position as a VSO last August, he’s assisted more than 300 veterans, but is always reaching out to help more.

The Lake County Veterans Services is a county agency independent of, but in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and works to identify and break down barriers which veterans, dependents and survivors face in health care, education and quality of life.

“It was a tough year because of COVID, but as restrictions started lifting, I have been able to get out there more to reach out to our local veterans,” Zelony said.

Zelony, who served 12 years in the U.S. Navy and field service engineer training in different parts of the world, is a VFW life member, and belongs to AMVETS and the Lake County Honor Huard. He is active in the community also as a Luther Lions Club member, and participates in Feeding America at Luther and St. Ann's.

“I am looking for veterans, to give them my card and pamphlets of the services we offer. I have been going to township meetings to introduce myself and get the word out there,” he said, adding he got a start in advocacy for veterans helping his dad get the benefits he earned. “I find a lot of satisfaction helping those who were stymied by the V.A. for years all the sudden get their benefits, and seeing the smiles on their face. I feel this is a calling — to help veterans however I can.”

With extra grant funding allowing for some budget increase for the LCVS, Zelony plans on getting 10x10 event tent and flags with the military branch seals so he can reach out to veterans at events with information on services he provides. During this past Blessing of the Bikes, Zelony helped transport the Vietnam Wall from Newaygo with the AMVET Riders, and was also to distribute pamphlets

He also puts pamphlets at post offices, branch banks and churches, hoping to reach veterans.

There are also two billboards, one on U.S. 10 near Chase and another on M-37 near Branch, letting people know of the services, as well as a radio advertisement on WTCM.

“Lake County has been very underserviced for years. A rep. came down once a month, I am here every day,” he said. “I feel I have been successful and veterans are being heard - giving them satisfaction. It is like a weight lifts off their shoulders – they feel like they are finally getting somewhere.”

Zelony works on disability claims, health care, pensions and education, and widow and survivor benefits. He will assist vets and represent them if they appeal for their claims.

Zelony said he’s there also to give a listening ear.

“I get to hear their stories. I've been there too,” he said, adding that his office can offer privacy, as opposed to VSOs being housed in Michigan Works! or other like facilities. “My office is in the courthouse where we can shut the door and have privacy to discuss what they are going through. The more information veterans give, the more details I can put in their claim.”

Some of the services provided are free benefit counseling to veterans and their families to make sure they are making most of the benefits they earned, and its determined what state and federal benefits they qualify for. Zelony also helps compile the necessary paperwork for their claim, serving as an advocate to make sure the application is processed correctly.

Zelony would be glad to assist and give direction to veterans.

He may be reached at 231-745-6003, and has an office located at the Lake County Courthouse, 800 Tenth St., Baldwin. His email is veterans2@co.lake.mi.us