DOUBLE SPRINGS - Veterans across Winston County who have faced difficulties obtaining benefits and services after the county’s veterans service office closed in 2012, are relieved that the office has been reopened.
The grand opening of the Winston County’s new Veterans Service Office, located in the basement of the Winston County Courthouse Annex, included a ribbon cutting attended by county and state officials, as well as U.S. Congressman Robert Aderholt. Aderholt officially cut the ribbon, surrounded by Winston County Commissioners and officials with the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs.
W. Kent Davis, Alabama’s commission of veterans affairs, noted the grand opening came during the 75th anniversary of the Alabama Veterans Service office.
“We used to have veterans service offices in all 67 counties in Alabama. In 2011-2012, because of the budget situation in the state, there were budget cutbacks, and we closed 17 offices,” Davis noted.
This brought the total number of offices to 50 throughout the state, Davis added.
When Davis became commissioner in 2019, a budget workshop was conducted to seek ways to reopen offices, especially in more rural areas where veterans might have transportation issues.
“We identified Winston County as one of the offices we could reopen,” Davis pointed out. “We looked at the budget and decided we could open 10 offices in 2020. This (in Winston County) is number six, so this will be the 56th Veterans Service office to be reopened.”
Plans are to eventually have veterans service offices in every county of the state. “We hope by the end of this year to get up to 60, and if the budget will support it, eventually back to 67.”
The reopening of the Winston County office, Tuesday, Sept. 1, was the result of a partnership, with the county providing the office space and the Alabama Veterans Affairs Department providing the salary and benefits for the veterans affairs officer stationed at the site. Nathan Tidwell will be the veterans service officer for the county.
Winston County currently has about 2,000 veterans that can be serviced by the newly reopened office. The office is set up by the state legislature to provide assistance to all veterans, which number about 400,000 across the state.
The veterans service officer assists veterans in applying for benefits and services that veterans earned from their military service, whether it be federal disability compensation or applying for scholarships or residency in a state veterans home, according to Davis. All of these services are free of charge, he added.
“We can represent a veteran before the federal government, all the way through the appeals process if their initial claim is denied,” he said.
As the crowd of local, state and federal officials gathered together in the annex parking lot, Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes told them the county was pleased that the office has been reopened in Double Springs.
“There has been a lot of hard work and a lot of support here. We see that by the people in our community who showed up today,” Hayes said.
Hayes then asked the crowd to give a round of applause for state officials and Aderholt for helping make the office’s reopening a reality.
“There’s probably no office in the courthouse or the county seat that we work more closely with than veterans service officers,” Aderholt said, “because we have a lot of folks who reach out to us about military service, about their pension or about some issue they are having.”
Aderholt commended Dwight Thomas, who was Winston County’s veterans service officer for 23 years, as well as Tidwell, who now is serving in that capacity.
“I also see the importance of making sure that every county has an office open,” Aderholt added. “That’s so important for our veterans. A lot of our veterans are elderly and having to travel. It was very difficult for some of them.”
Davis informed the crowd the veterans service office was established after World War II to provide direct hands-on services to veterans in local communities.
“Almost one-in-10 Alabamians is a military veteran. That is incredible,” added Davis. “We are one of the highest per capita populations of veterans in the United States.
“We are all here to support you,” Davis continued. “From Montgomery on down.”
He then introduced from the crowd Timothy Edgil, district manager for the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs for region 1, whose home office is based in Jasper, and Bob Horton, assistant commissioner for outreach and engagement.
“You are welcome to call upon any of us anytime,” Davis said.
Also among the crowd were State Representatives Tracy Estes and Tim Wadsworth.
Estes began by thanking all of the veterans in attendance. He stated plans to reopen the Winston County office have been ongoing at least the past two years.
“This has been a long and arduous process for a lot of people,” Estes said. “Unlike a lot of government services our nation provides, this is one that has been earned.
“I want to thank all of you here today who have earned the right for these services because they are so critical,” Estes pointed out.
Wadsworth proudly stated his father is a veteran of WWII.
“I want to thank all of you for your service,” Wadsworth said to the veterans in the crowd.
When his father entered military service during the 1940s, there were at least 11 or 12 juniors who also entered the service from Meek High School, Wadsworth said.
“We appreciate what your have done for this country over the years,” Wadsworth stated. “We’re in a difficult time in our country right now, where veterans, police officers, first responders and our elected officials are all under attack nationwide.
“We’ve got to do some things to help rebuild our country back,” Wadsworth added.
With Wadsworth’s father approaching age 93, the accessibility of a veterans service office serving the county is very beneficial to him, he said.
Thomas, who working out of two offices in Double Springs and Haleyville at one time, said the office had been desperately needed for some time.
After Thomas retired in 2010 and the Haleyville office closed, temporary workers came out of Marion and Walker counties to man the office in Double Springs until it closed in 2012.
The Winston County office had been open since the offices were first established, Thomas said.
“I tried my best to keep them from closing it,” he said. “My big point was that you had a lot of older veterans and their dependants who were unable to travel to Jasper, Hamilton or Russellville to get service.”
The office reopening marked, as Thomas described it, a great day for Winston County.
“It was something we needed. It was something that should never have happened. They should have never closed it,” Thomas added.
Thomas urged veterans and their dependants to support and use the newly reopened office.
Tidwell said he was glad to be home, serving as the veterans service officer for Winston County.
“I was in Marion County and transferred to Winston County,” Tidwell said.
“I hate paperwork. I did it in the National Guard for 25 years, but I love helping veterans,” said Tidwell. “So I tolerate paperwork to help veterans.”
“Everybody wants to be a part of something good, and this is something good,” added Hayes. “It took a group effort.”
Edgil commended the commission for having an “excellent” cooperative spirit in finding a place for the office.
The former location of the Veterans Service Office was the Winston County Courthouse across from the annex, Hayes noted. The reason the office was reopened at the basement of the annex was to give better handicap accessibility with an entrance door from the lower parking lot behind the annex, Hayes said.
Mickey Holdbrooks, adjutant for American Legion Post 33, noted, “This is a great day for veterans in Winston County. We’ve been needing this for several years.”
The office is available for veterans and their dependants Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. each week. For more information, call the office at (205) 489-2444.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.