Wendell Allen, Veterans Affairs officer for Horry County, at work in the former Cochran School building in Conway, is not far from his boyhood home. Allen was “born and raised about two miles down the road” on what is known as the old Lonnie King farm where his father was a sharecropper.
Following a distinguished career in the Air Force, Allen was hired as Horry County’s veterans officer in 2008 and “the first thing I did was move” the office from its downtown Conway location to the former school building, also the headquarters of the Parks and Recreation Department.
Veterans Affairs is a busy place, typically seeing 50 veterans on Mondays and Tuesdays. The numbers are impressive – 8,742 people (36 per day on average) visited the office in 2012. Allen and three claims coordinators filed 4,597 claims. “We help veterans, widows and children to navigate through the VA system.” The VA is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, formerly the Veterans Administration. County offices such as the one in Conway are federally mandated, although the government contributes only $4,200 a year with the county paying the lion’s share of the costs.
“I concentrate on pensions,” Allen says, and his efforts are showing impressive gains. Compensation and pension benefits to Horry County veterans totaled $77.2 million in 2011, up from $58.7 million in 2010. That’s an increase of $18.5 million. Pensions are need-based, meaning a veteran or survivor living on a Social Security benefit may qualify for a VA payment. A widow of a wartime veteran may qualify, for example for financial assistance for an aide/attendant at home or a portion of nursing home care.
The office also handles other consultations and special inquiries, such as replacing or locating medals of a parent or grandparent. Claims coordinator Tabitha Barfield specializes in issues unique to female veterans. Other coordinators are Ronnie Shelley and Beth Harris. Sandy Coring is the administrative assistant.
The total veteran population of Horry County was 26,583 in 2011, but the population could be higher, with the moving of veterans into the area. South Carolina officially has well over 400,000 veterans.
Allen was one of five brothers and three sisters in the Allen family. He was “next to the baby” and followed three older brothers in an Air Force career. All five served in the military – three in Vietnam – and the four in USAF careers have a total of 100 years service. Wendell Allen served from 1971 to 1995, starting in Vietnam where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as an airplane gunner. In his career he rose to senior master sergeant, and was awarded numerous decorations, medals and citations.
For military veterans who served years ago in peacetime, it may feel odd to hear from Allen, “Thank you for your service.” However, that’s part of the message Veterans Affairs telephone callers hear, reflecting what he and the office are about. Just how dedicated are these folks? They even make house calls to homebound veterans on Friday afternoons after the office closes at noon.