SPRING HILL — If you are a military veteran and a stack of denied applications stands between you and your benefits, the word on the street is that Matt Peters can help.
"He's the man that walks on water," said RayE'tta Barnett.
Her husband, Edward Barnett, served in the Navy as an electronics technician from 1957 to 1962. He was certain that both a back injury and asbestos exposure sustained during his years in the service qualified him for disability services, but he kept getting denied.
One day a fellow veteran suggested he take his paperwork to Peters, who serves as Hernando County's Veteran Services officer and Veteran Services manager. Peters helped Barnett refile his claim, which was approved a few months later.
When it comes to navigating red tape, Peters has the magic touch.
"I'd put him up against any Veteran Services Office in the state," said director of county Health and Human Services Jean Rags, who supervises the Department of Veteran Services.
"He makes the extra calls," said Rags of the free services that Peters provides. "He puts a face on the claim. He has gone above and beyond for our veterans."
Peters, 45, is a retired Marine Corps chief warrant officer 2. After retirement, he began working with veterans, even spending a year commuting to St. Petersburg to work as a veterans' claims examiner for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
This experience has proved invaluable.
"I learned the inner workings of the department," said Peters.
A lot of paperwork is involved in submitting a claim. In many cases, a veteran must have proof of disability. The form used to be up to 20 pages, said Peters. It's now online, but you still have to print out the signature page and mail it in.
"In St. Pete, they get anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 a day," said Peters. "It's the busiest regional office in the country."
"To file a claim that's going to be granted takes talent and in-depth knowledge of VA law," said Alene Tarter, director of the Division of Benefits and Assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Hernando County is outstanding at determining the best benefit for each vet," Tarter said.
On a recent morning, Peters pointed to a stack of papers several inches thick. It was from a veteran who had been turned down for benefits.
"He wants me to go back through these," he said. "This is what I do at home when I can't sleep," he added with a smile.
With more than 23,000 veterans in the county, the office, at 7478 Forest Oaks Blvd. in Spring Hill, keeps busy with walk-ins, appointments, home visits and a transportation service. During the 2008-2009 year, officials visited with more than 2,500 clients, including 219 outreach visits.
The hard work pays off, said Peters. During the 2008-2009 year, county veterans received an additional $14 million in support, bringing the total to more than $73 million.
"That money keeps people off county and state programs," said Peters. "It helps them have a better quality of life."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.