Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Cheri Knox helped more than 300 veterans claim $34 million in benefits for medical conditions connected to their military service. Often, these veterans have been suffering for years or decades with conditions caused by Agent Orange, burn pits, radiation and other hazardous materials.
Knox is a veteran service officer, or VSO, trained to assist veterans, their dependents and survivors in completing and filing benefit claims. She is known for her tenacity, and her services are in high demand.
“I never turn a vet down,” she said.
Colleagues said that determination shows.
“During this worldwide pandemic emergency, Cheri didn’t close her doors to clients, instead opted for innovation and determination,” said Eliseo “Joe” Dumlao, an outreach specialist at the Spokane Vet Center who nominated her.
She continued to counsel clients on claim issues, dropping off documents, using written letters, fax, email, lots of phone calls and virtual meetings. This brought a substantial boost of income at a critical time in the lives of these veterans and their families, when many faced unemployment.
“Her name carries a lot of weight in this area, especially among veterans,” said Chris Warren, an Air Force veteran and Whitworth University student doing his work-study at the Vet Center.
“Pigs can fly,” is a theme of many thank-you cards that decorate her office, proving what’s possible despite the odds.
Knox, a U.S. Army veteran who served as a cook from 1979 to 1986, knows what it’s like to be on the other side of her desk. She struggles with a weakened immune system and kidney failure she traces to exposure to burn pits in Korea.
She entered the military during the first era when women were trained alongside men. Her first sergeant said, “I don’t know what to do with you. You’re probably going to last about a week.”
“I definitely proved him wrong,” she said.
Knox became active in the Deer Park VFW post in the late 1990s. For 10 years, she helped veterans with their claims as a volunteer post service officer, but her ability in this position was limited.
In 2010, she contracted the H1N1 virus and became very sick. While she was recovering in the nursing home, she used her wheelchair to visit other veterans to help with their claims.
After she recovered, she became an accredited service officer, a full-time job that allowed her to access records and file claims directly.
She became a world of knowledge for veterans who often don’t realize what benefits they are entitled to. Her work is vital because navigating the claims system can be complicated and confusing.
Van Pittson, office manager at the vet center, said he sees veterans come to the office not knowing the process and worried about the status of their claims, but they leave with confidence. “She is always saying, I’ll never give up and we’re going to get through this. I really see people leave with hope,” he said.
It can take eight years to appeal a claim, so it is a stressful job. And it’s always tempting to take on more work.
“I always take care of myself first,” Knox said, feeling refreshed after taking a few days off. “I think that’s why I’m so successful.”
At 64, she plans to continue this work as long as her health allows.
“It is so humbling. Every day I think I’m getting too old and I need to quit.” But then she hears from a veteran who tells her she saved their life.
Yet sometimes veterans think their problems are only financial.
“You think it will solve all the veteran’s problems,” she said. “It never solves the mental health.” She refers these veterans to counselors at the vet center and other resources.
Knox loves her work because she is able to connect with people from a military background in a way she never could in civilian life.
“I’ve been lost since I’ve been out of the Army,” she said. “Because, you know, you’re an overachiever, and I did that on every job I’ve ever been in in my life. The civilian world sometimes doesn’t understand us.”
With the recent passing of the PACT Act, a new law that greatly expands benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, she has been busy reviewing some 15,000 client cases she has seen over her career and getting new claims in order.
Fortunately, she has help. In the office next door, her former client Derek Morrow is now an accredited service officer too.
At first, he tried filing his claims by himself, Morrow said. “Didn’t work very well, didn’t know what I was doing back then,” he said.
Knox gave him some pointers and walked him through the steps. After his claims went through, she asked him if he would like to help others do the same.
“She definitely was a big influence on getting me in here,” he said. “Then once I started doing this, I saw how amazing this job is and how important it is, and now I know why she stays.”
Morrow said going through his own claims process helped him do some deeper processing as well. “Going through the process helped me open up to realizing some of the things I had gone through while I was in the service. Things I could file a claim for and issues that I had that I had been coping with for years.”
When a veteran finally receives their claim letter, it is rewarding and makes it all worth it.
Knox’s service was recognized this month by the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, which honored her with the 2022 Superior Service Award.
“I just work really hard; I don’t know what else to say,” she shrugged. “I’ve been a good veteran that helps everybody in my community.”
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