In 1996, local Vietnam veteran Rubin Willis was deemed 100 percent disabled by the U.S. Army — the branch he served for more than 25 years.
It wasn't until a few months ago that Willis found out he didn't have to pay property taxes to the state or county because of his disability. Willis, like hundreds of thousands of other veterans, didn't know about the benefit he was entitled to.
Willis, who has kept careful records of every tax payment he's ever made, has paid more than $3,700 since 1996. And he won't be able to get the money back.
"I feel like I should get my money back plus all the interest that should have been collected during that time," Willis said. "The money I paid should have been in my pocket. I should be able to recoup that."
Allyson Holland, chief clerk of the Montgomery County revenue commissioner's office, said like any other tax exemption, the individual has to apply for the tax break. She said the state statute governing the exemption makes it clear that Willis wouldn't be able to get his money back.
"A lot of people think we know they're disabled, and unfortunately, there's no way for us to know that unless they come in with that information," Holland said.
Holland said there are about 4,638 people who qualify for a tax exemption for being totally disabled. Those individuals include anyone considered disabled — not just veterans.
There are about 233,849 disabled workers in Alabama who qualify for the Old Age, Survivor and Disability Insurance program administered by the Social Security Administration, according to federal data. Of those, 16,900 are in Montgomery County and receiving the benefit.
There are about 177,062 people in the state, or about 3.7 percent of the population, who are on the Social Security Administration's Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance program for disability only. That figure includes 9,395 in Montgomery County, 3,435 in Elmore County and 2,345 in Autauga County.
Bill Van Der Pol, a staff attorney at the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, said not all veterans are on Social Security programs. He said there's no way to know how many people are disabled or would qualify for a property tax exemption because there are so many agencies who define being disabled differently.
Willis, who said he didn't learn about the exemption until a clerk at the probate office mentioned it earlier this year, was disappointed he didn't know about it. He said he takes advantage of his other benefits, but the counselor from Veterans Affairs he worked with when he retired for medical purposes never told him about it.
"Unfortunately, what he's experienced is not uncommon and it's not exclusive to Alabama or any other state," said Jeffrey Hall, employment director of Disabled American Veterans, a national nonprofit veterans advocacy group with offices in every state. "When someone gets out of the military, there's no master list that's provided to them that says here's everything you're going to be eligible for."
Hall said there's no hard data on how many veterans don't know about or take advantage of benefits, but he said he can confidently say most aren't aware of their state or federal benefits.
"People, in general, would be shocked about what veterans don't know," he said.
In rural areas, fewer people know about entitlements, Hall said. In urban areas, there are going to be more people who know about benefits because word of mouth is the biggest advertiser. Some veterans choose to exclude themselves because they don't feel they're disabled or qualified to receive benefits, even if they are, he said.
Hall said his organization has offices and representatives all over the country — including mobile offices that travel to rural areas — who help veterans learn about, understand and obtain their benefits.
When people are getting out of the military, they don't always pay attention to everything because they're focused on getting out, Hall said. Most have to go through three days of informational sessions about their benefits.
"So many things are thrown at them at the end of their service," he said. "(The military) is trying to provide information. They can better that information, and they're trying to. But if (a veteran) misses something, they can still go get assistance."
Willis, who served in the Special Forces in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was seriously injured in Vietnam. He was injured by a bullet and sustained back injuries from being a paratrooper. He also has a plastic knee.
"I'm on medication for the things that happened to me in Vietnam that'll never go away," he said. "I paid my dues, I served my country, so don't take something away from me."
For information on veterans benefits, visit va.gov.