Smith County kicks off veterans outreach program

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The Smith County Commissioners Court and Veteran Services Office on Tuesday kicked off “Operation Reciprocity: Serving Those Who Served Us,” a summer-long outreach initiative for the local veteran community.

The county will provide information to the public about services offered by the Smith County Veteran Services Office (VSO) and will ask for feedback about how the county can better serve the local veteran community through its VSO.

The office provides information and advocacy services to veterans and their families throughout the claims, appeals and benefit processes with U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

State Representative Matt Schaefer led the invocation and Pledges of Allegiance and several veteran community leaders, as well as Smith County employees who served in the military, came to Commissioners Court on Tuesday for the presentation and announcement. The names of 66 Smith County employees who are veterans were read aloud.

The county also unveiled new informational brochures to be used by the VSO to help better communicate services offered by the county and point veterans to other local veteran organizations.

Smith County officials will host Citizens and Veterans Outreach Meetings throughout the county this summer to provide information about resources available to the more than 17,000 veterans in Smith County.

Citizens and Veterans Outreach Meetings will be held:

• 6 p.m., Tuesday, June 12, at America Legion Post 12 (5503 American Legion Rd., Tyler);

• 6:30 p.m., Monday, July 9, at Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1799 (14391 Rhones Quarter Rd., Tyler);

• 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 16, at Kinzie Community Center (912 Mt. Sylvan St., Lindale)

• 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 14, at the Smith County R.B. Hubbard Facility, “The Hub (304 E. Ferguson St., Tyler).

During these meetings and throughout the initiative, Smith County intends to answer common questions about what the county office can do, including how it can help veterans with certain claims handled by Veterans Affairs.

Smith County is also asking those who have gone to the Smith County VSO to fill out a brief survey about their experience. These “Veteran Services Feedback Forms” will be available at the community meetings, as well as at www-smith-county.com for anyone who wishes to fill one out and submit it. Smith County will also be handing out flyers and brochures to help educate the public. They are also available at any of the Smith County Justice of the Peace/Constable Offices.

Smith County Veteran Services Officer Michael Roark and his staff help veterans complete and submit paperwork to the Department of Veteran Affairs for disability compensation claims, veterans or surviving spouse pensions and help file appeals for negative decisions made by the VA. He and his staff also assist them with obtaining education benefits for veterans and dependents and assist surviving spouses and dependents in filing burial claims with the VA.

“Operation Reciprocity” seeks to ensure that the VSO is providing the highest quality customer service to local veterans and their families and, when needed, to serve as a bridge to other veterans organizations that can assist veterans in need.

More information about the project, as well as the flyer and feedback forms, is available at www.smith-county.com.

VETERANS COURT

The VSO staff also serves as counselors and coordinates the Smith County Veterans Treatment Courts.

After starting the Veterans Treatment Court for misdemeanor offenders in 2015, Roark has been working to begin a program for some felony cases.

The purpose of the court is to work with veterans charged with certain offenses to get them necessary treatment for any mental health issues and to return them to being productive members of society. Goals set for those going through the program include finding a job and securing their finances; and going to alcohol, drug or anger management meetings and treatment.

To be eligible for the program, a veteran has to admit guilt to a qualifying offense, and have a traumatic brain injury or a psychological disorder, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), related to their military service or a military sexual trauma. The crime committed cannot be a premeditated one.

The Smith County District Attorney’s Office has helped the Veteran Services Office, as well as the judges presiding over the cases, to plan and develop the programs.

EXPERIENCE

Michael Roark, who heads the VSO, is from Chapel Hill, graduated from Robert E. Lee High School and was a Wills Point Police Officer for three years before serving in the National Guard for seven years. He went on active duty in 1988, serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division, and serving in Operation Just Cause, before he was medically retired in 1992.

After retiring from the military, Roark returned to Tyler and was attending school before he moved to Sweden from 1995 to 2012, where he served as a lieutenant for the Swedish National Prisons Bureau, as well as a K-9 handler.

Roark moved back to Tyler in October 2012, and began working as an Assistant Veterans Service Officer for Smith County in January 2013. On Dec. 15, 2014, Roark took over as Veterans Service Officer and the Veterans Court Program Director.

The office has two assistant Veterans Service Officers -- Catherine Thomas and Douglas McGill.

Thomas enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1993, attended basic training and the Law Enforcement Academy at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Her numerous assignments ranged from K-9 law enforcement patrolman to kennel master and installation security manager. During her time as a canine handler, she provided security for several presidents, secretaries of state and five G8 summits. She served in Iraq, Qatar, Australia, South America and Africa.

An advocate for veterans, Thomas serves as the Veterans Treatment Court administrator. She is currently working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is very active in the community. She volunteers with several nonprofit organizations that serve veterans.

Douglas McGill was born and raised in Humble, Texas, and comes from a long line of U.S. Army veterans. At 19, McGill joined the U.S. Marines. He retired on January 31, 2017, after 15 years of service. During his honorable service, he has deployed four times, and has proven his leadership abilities during combat operations.

McGill is married to Cierra D. McGill, and has two children, an 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. In May 2016, McGill earned an Associates of Arts degree through the University of Maryland University College. On May 7, 2018, he began working for Smith County as an assistant veterans service officer.

The Smith County Veteran Services Office, located at 210 E. Ferguson, is open from 8 a.m. to noon and 1-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

For more information, call Mike Roark, Smith County Veteran Services Officer, at (903) 590-2953 or visit www-smith-county.com.

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