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North country veterans fair in Potsdam expands, focuses on benefits

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POTSDAM — Because of its remote location and sparse population, the north country’s veterans are difficult to communicate with.

That is why in its second iteration, the North Country Veterans Appreciation Day will emphasize dialogue between veterans and the organizations charged with serving them.

“We’re really doing this for two reasons,” said Michael L. Boprey, St. Lawrence County director of veterans services. “Before last year, we’d never had one, and number two, we hear that veterans were never aware of a benefit or nobody ever told them. It is important to be aware of what your benefits are. It is kind of a one-stop shop for them, get them educated.”

The Jan. 5 celebration at Clarkson University’s student center will feature a series of town hall discussions about what services are available to veterans and how they can be accessed.

Mr. Boprey said he wanted to help veterans understand some of the issues that organizations like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs face when trying to assist the north country.

“They are trying to figure out what the best thing is for a certain area, but it got me thinking that sometimes our veterans come and ask questions about their benefits,” he said. “With that issue in the forefront, we thought this year we would go ahead and hold town hall meetings.”

The town halls will focus on three topics: health care, education and benefits. They also will act as a sounding board to hear the concerns of the region’s veterans.

“There’s a group in the area, Operation Veterans, who want to do something to improve health care access,” Mr. Boprey said. “Our veterans have legitimate, valid concerns and maybe they can force some change to the VA. We hope that will be the start of something that will springboard into making an improvement.”

This year’s event was at the Cheel Arena in June. Mr. Boprey said the event was moved to January to avoid schedule conflicts and to try to build momentum for awareness of veterans’ issues.

“We’re just trying something new,” he said. “It gives us some breathing room to plan for the 2014 event.”

The celebration has been renamed from the St. Lawrence County Veterans Appreciation Day, in hopes of attracting veterans from Franklin and Jefferson counties. The organizers also hope to lure some U.S. military veterans living in Canada back across the border, Mr. Boprey said.

“By all means, they may not be citizens, but they are U.S. veterans and are entitled to veterans benefits,” he said.

This year’s job fair will not return to the Appreciation Day, said Mr. Boprey, but he said employment for veterans is still an area of concern.

“I have seen quite a few veterans return and take advantage of their education benefits, but we also need to pay attention to our economy and our job market,” he said. “Without jobs, what do we do for them when they come back to civilian life?”

The event will also mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.

“We’re trying to make more of an appreciation day out of it,” Mr. Boprey said. “Our veterans are aging, the population is aging and we want to thank them for their service.”

Every veteran who pre-registers will receive a ticket to that evening’s Clarkson or St. Lawrence university hockey games.

Mr. Boprey said he hopes the event will bring in newly discharged veterans.

“I’m constantly asked by my legislators about whether we are seeing a lot of returning veterans, but it is hard to gauge that because they aren’t counted in the veterans census until they are out of the military,” he said. “Furthermore, we don’t have a good idea of who in the area is going into the military.”

The North Country Veterans’ Appreciation Day will be held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Jan. 5 at Clarkson University’s Student Center. All veterans wishing to attend should preregister at the event’s website: http://www.northcountryveterans.com.

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