BRIGHTON — U.S. Army veteran Raymond Jolly served in Vietnam from 1965-67 in areas where the herbicide Agent Orange was sprayed.
When Jolly returned from service at age 23, he got married. Two years later, after feeling weak and passing out numerous times, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
More symptoms followed, including peripheral neuropathy — damage to nerves near brain and spinal cord causing weakness, numbness and pain in hands, feet and other parts of the body. He also lost some hearing, vision and suffers from heart disease.
According to its website, the Veterans Administration recognizes these as symptoms of exposure to Agent Orange.
Although Jolly is not Native American, the Seminole Tribe was able to help him in his quest for VA benefits with the help of its Veterans Service Organization.
Jolly and his wife Judy had two healthy babies, but the third was born deformed; his spinal cord was outside of his body.
The baby lived less than two hours, but the obstetrician recognized the deformity as possibly being related to Agent Orange.
The doctor asked the Jollys if she could take photos and send them to the VA. Six weeks later, Jolly called the VA and they denied receiving any photos.
“Our mistake was not having copies of what we sent to the VA,” said Jolly, 74, of Okeechobee. “There was nothing we could do but drop it.”
Over the ensuing years, Jolly sought help with his illnesses and was under the care of private doctors. He couldn’t work because of the severity of his disabilities.
In 2011, Judy Jolly was in a serious automobile accident. She spent six months in the hospital and was in a wheelchair. She couldn’t work and they lost their health insurance.
The family was in dire straits financially and could barely afford their monthly expenses. The electricity was about to be cut off.
Jolly knew the VA had certain benefits for veterans, but he didn’t pay attention to it until one day in church he met Dan Hunt, president of the Okeechobee chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. They tried for 18 months to get benefits, but were denied repeatedly.
That’s when Hunt brought Jolly to the Brighton Reservation to meet with Marc McCabe, who runs the Tribe’s Veterans Service Organization.
Since 2011, McCabe, bureau chief and chief service officer of Vietnam Veterans of America’s St. Petersburg office, and Elaine Westermeyer, outreach coordinator for the VA, have been meeting with veterans monthly in Brighton and Hollywood to help them navigate the system to receive benefits.
The organization serves Tribal veterans, Tribal employee veterans and other veterans living in the area near the Brighton Reservation.
“People don’t realize these benefits exist,” McCabe said. “We have been able to recover more than $350 million for more than 3,000 veterans. The money stays in the areas where they live and has an economic impact on the community.”
Once the VA determines eligibility of benefits, a one-time check covering back benefits is paid to the veteran.
The VSO has won one-time retroactive checks for Tribal members and employees in amounts ranging from $25,000 to $900,000. These veterans then receive monthly benefits for life.
The percentage of disability granted by the VA determines the amount vets will receive. In cases of full disability, spouses and family members get ChampVA health insurance, commissary privileges, children get a free college education and property taxes are waived.
“Now suddenly a veteran is able to buy a house,” McCabe said. “If it wasn’t for Tribal Council, this would never have happened. These vets would have been lost in the system and kicked to the curb.”
McCabe works closely with Westermeyer to assist the vets. Being outside of the VA bureaucracy there are things McCabe can do that Westermeyer cannot, and vice versa. They are an effective team; the VSO has a 94 percent success rate. They see between 40 and 70 new veterans every month.
“It’s a unique program. I don’t know another organization that has a partnership with a tribal nation,” McCabe said. “This was something that came up in a Seminole veterans meeting in Brighton. It turned out to be a success because of the partnership and the trust. If it wasn’t for Tribal leadership, we wouldn’t have this.”
McCabe was able to get Jolly a non-service connected pension and a retroactive payment of $12,000, which helped the family get back on its feet.
In 2015, VSO was able to get Jolly a service connected pension, which doubled his monthly allocation.
In early December Jolly was declared 100 percent permanently disabled and his monthly check doubled again.
The extra income allowed the Jollys to get out of debt, buy a vehicle and not be dependent on others to take them where they needed to go, pay their bills and improve their credit rating. They even purchased a double wide trailer.
“Our life is 100 percent better,” Jolly said. “The biggest change is not having to worry about where we will get money to pay our bills and buy groceries. It’s just incredible what the VA has been able to do for us and it’s all because of Marc, Elaine and especially the Indian reservation.”
Jolly carries McCabe’s and Westermeyer’s business cards with him and gives them out when he meets a veteran in need. Unfortunately, not everyone is open to pursuing help.
“You’d be surprised how many people turn you down,” Jolly said. “They think no one can help them. Most of the time, Marc can help. I know one or two guys who died from diseases they got from Agent Orange.”
The Jollys have been married for 51 years, have two sons and three grandchildren. Raymond Jolly enjoys hunting and fishing as often as he can. He says the secret to a long marriage is simple.
“Pray to the lord and say I’m sorry when I wake up and I’m sorry when I go to bed,” Jolly said. “Share everything, don’t have any secrets.”
Judy Jolly is very appreciative of the work McCabe and Westermeyer did for them.
“Marc and Elaine have been a godsend,” she said. “They are really caring people and they put their hearts into it. We are so thankful for what they have done for us. I can’t praise God enough for them.”
McCabe says he does this for the veterans and remains hands-on for every case. He even helps widows get their pensions.
“The only time I will stop doing it is when I pass or decide to quit,” said McCabe, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marines. “I don’t see that happening any time soon.”