A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 1999/January 2000

Changing The Future:

Dudley And The VVA Commendation Medal

By Jim Belshaw

The recipient of the 1999 VVA Commendation Medal is Dudley--no first name, no middle initial. Only Dudley.

She prefers it that way. She says nothing else is necessary.

That single name has been well-known in Northern California veteran communities for the twenty-seven years she has worked at the Sonoma County Veterans Service Office. Veterans seeking help with VA claims ask for her by name because the word has been out for a long time: Dudley gets things done.

She is an Army veteran herself, having served in the Signal Corps from 1962-65. She is the first paid Life Member of VVA Chapter 223 in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Dudley has sat on the chapter's Board of Directors since its inception and has worked on virtually every community project in which the chapter has been involved. She is the chair of the chapter’s Veterans Affairs, Agent Orange/Dioxin, and Veterans Incarcerated Committees and is a member of the POW/MIA Committee. She also serves on the Finance Committee for the Board of Directors.

Ten years ago, Dudley encouraged Vietnam veterans to become involved in Memorial Day flag ceremonies in which a thousand full-sized American flags are flown. In the beginning, it took twenty veterans several hours to raise and lower the flags. Now hundreds take part.

She was instrumental in establishing POW/MIA ceremonies in Sonoma County. In 1985 she encouraged all veterans groups in the county to join forces in the annual Santa Rosa-Luther Burbank Rose Parade, the second largest parade in the state. For the past thirteen years, those entries have stretched for two blocks.

Dudley has mastered the ways of the VA and has become an expert in processing claims, particularly those related to PTSD. But expertise came only with time, and the early years were especially difficult.

"The traumatic thing was working in this office from 1972-80, knowing there was nothing you could do about people who were so mentally disturbed," she said. There was nothing she could do because PTSD wasn't officially recognized by the VA until 1980. After that, the county began processing claims.

She said the VA questioned why Sonoma County accounted for 75 percent of the PTSD claims in Northern California. "All I could say to that was that we were the only ones doing our jobs," she said.

She credits VVA service rep training and a first-class chewing-out with advancing her knowledge of VA claim intricacies. "Around 1989 or 1990, I talked to a VVA member who was 100 percent PTSD," she said. "I asked him how he got the 100 percent rating on PTSD. He went ballistic on me. He told me I was a good-for-nothing service rep, that I had no business being one if I couldn't get 100 percent. He just chewed me out royally. He walked away, came back a few minutes later, and chewed me out again. It was fine for him to do that. I had it coming. I thought, ‘Damn, what am I doing wrong?’"

Back home in California, Dudley reconsidered the advice she had been given at the service rep training: consult with the VA, talk to the people who work there. It took weeks to gather the

proper materials and information, but once she did, she found success.

"It paid off that I listened," she said. "When VVA told me to go to my VA, I did. The training VVA gave me, I used. And now the VA is complying. Our VA [in Oakland] is doing a wonderful job. I know a lot of veterans are upset with the VA, but they're not going by the process and they don't know the process. A lot of county service offices don't know it. But you can work within the VA system. Find out what the VA needs to grant, cut out all the other garbage, and get to the issue. Follow the requirements. Work within the system. But make sure the system interprets the law correctly."

Dudley is fifty-five and has worked for twenty-seven years in the system. She doesn't foresee retirement and says she'll "probably die on the job." She finds great satisfaction in her work, knowing that she has made lives and families and communities better.

"I can't win them all," she said. "I don't judge people. I'm not paid to do that. I'm paid to produce. It can be stressful; it can be upsetting. They can die on me. They die too young. I remember the faces and I grieve. I like my clients. I'm accessible. I'm right here in the community. When they come see me, they know I care about them. I just want to right a wrong. I can't change the past, but we can change the future. That's the goal. What can we do to change your future? Let's move on."

 

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