DAYTON, Ohio — Thousands of Ohio’s veterans rushed to make a final deadline last month to sign up for an Ohio bonus program that rewards service members for their active duty in war.
The Ohio Department of Veteran Services spent roughly $110,000 this year making a last-minute push to raise awareness among Ohioans about the bonus, which gives veterans of the Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf wars up to a $1,500 bonus for their service, said Mike McKinney, the department’s spokesman. The deadline for Persian Gulf War veterans to sign up for the bonus ended Dec. 31.
The agency launched radio and television ads featuring top state leaders such as Gov. John Kasich and sent out targeted mailers to veterans who might have qualified for the bonus during the final three months of the Gulf War bonus. McKinney said his agency received a surge in phone calls in the final months leading up to the Persian Gulf War deadline. Calls from veterans inquiring about the bonus to the agency tripled to 5,000 during November and December.
“We believe that we have used every available tool that we have to try to reach the Gulf War veteran population in Ohio,” McKinney said. “We feel we had a very successful year.”
Only veterans who served in the Gulf War from Aug. 2, 1990 to Mar. 3, 1991 are eligible for the bonus, and McKinney said the department had difficulty determining just how many Ohio veterans were on duty during that time. For the first time, the state used a database of addresses of veterans who self-identify at the Department of Motor Vehicles to send targeted mailers notifying 260,000 veterans who were born between Jan. 1, 1950 to Dec. 31, 1974 to apply for the Gulf War bonus.
McKinney said advertising the final months of the bonus deadline paid off. As of Jan. 8, nearly 24,000 applications had been approved for bonuses and the agency was still processing 3,700 applications and waiting to open up 1,000 pieces of mail.
“People called in and said, ‘I saw it on TV or the radio or got a postcard,’ ” McKinney said of the bonus. “Those seemed to have worked to some degree. Once we get the final tally of applications, we’ll go back and look at where we got the most bang for our buck.”
State voters approved the bonus reward on a ballot initiative in 2009. Families of veterans who were killed in combat or died of diseases related to their tour are eligible for up to $6,500 in bonuses. The state issued $200 million in bonds for the program and only $60.7 million in tax-exempt bonuses have been paid out to veterans so far.
And, this year, the state will need to make another last-call pitch to veterans who served on active duty during the Iraq War. That bonus expires at the end of December. An expiration date has not yet been set for the Afghanistan War bonus because that war hasn’t officially ended yet. Roughly 50,000 of the 73,000 veterans who have signed up for the bonus have been those who served in the Afghanistan or Iraq wars.
Randy Aragon, 30, of Hamilton is one of thousands of Iraq war veterans who has already signed up for the bonus after his deployment. Aragon joined the Marines months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and just before he graduated from Hamilton High School. By 2003, he found himself stationed in Iraq where he was tasked with picking up bodies off the battlefield and making sure they got back home.
When he returned from his two war tours, he was surprised to learn about the state’s bonus program, along with other benefits, from the county’s veteran service organization.
“I had never heard of them before,” Aragon said of some of the federal and state benefits. “I was just in there looking for school benefits and just to find out there were so many bonuses and programs, that was surprising.”
For him, and thousands of other veterans, Ohio’s veteran bonus program doesn’t influence his decision to sign up for military duty, Aragon said. But, he said many of his fellow veterans relied on the bonus when they returned from overseas without job.
“A lot of guys that come home from being in war, this kind of money… that helps out with those guys who aren’t able to work,” Aragon said. “I know a lot of guys who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, they can use this kind of money, just to help make ends meet.”