THE ADVOCATE ASKS: Veterans Service Officer Jay Pinette is on an outreach mission to better serve Saugus vets
Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Jay Pinette, the Veteran Service Officer for Saugus. We asked him about the priorities he has set for himself since being appointed to the position earlier this year. Pinette, 63, of Wakefield, is a veteran of the U.S. Marines, having served from 1973-1976 and as a reservist from 1976 through 1996. He was activated for service during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He served as an Operations/Communications Chief and was responsible for the leadership and management of Marines who served in a variety of technical and combat support roles. Pinette retired as a Master Gunnery Sergeant in 1996. He has a BS in Management (1996) and an MBA in Operations Management (2000) from Bentley College. Pinette is an Arlington native –the oldest of seven children — and graduated in 1972 from Arlington High School. His father — the late James Pinette — was a medic in World War II. His mother, now 85, still lives in the family home and is the last original resident of the street. Pinette and his wife, Carole, originally from Malden, have two grown daughters, ages 24 and 26. After serving in the military, Pinette spent 27 years in private business. He retired in 2017 from his career as a Senior Management/Principal Engineer from Thermo Cardiosystems, a medical device company that makes heart pumps for transplant patients. Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: So, Jay, what was your first day?
A: My first day was sometime in March. My first day on the job was actually at a conference that Veterans Services Organization had in Leominster. So, my first day on the job, I knew how to spell veterans services officer, and that was it. I didn’t know much about the job. One of the things that I found, not only at that conference, but almost every day since I’ve been in this job, is that my fellow veterans services officers are always there. If I have a question, I can reach out to anyone. And they will all drop what they are doing and find me an answer or give me an answer. Because there isn’t really a formal training process where you can just jump in. There’s some online training stuff that you can do to help you manage the system. But, thankfully, I have Nancy (Stead), who’s been here 20 years and I’m her fifth VSO. So, she helps me out a lot.
Q: Now, how did it come about that you got the job here?
A: Well, I was retired from my civilian job. I retired in April of 2017 after 27 years at a medical device company. It was the type of job where I was doing a lot of traveling and we had some family health issues, and it was just time for me to spend more time at home, with more of a family focus situation. And, at the time, I was on the Veterans Advisory Board in Wakefield. And the district director for the Veterans Service District here — which is Melrose, Wakefield and Saugus — Karen Burke, reached out to me to see if I was interested in “coming out of retirement” to fill an open position here in Saugus Town Hall as the veterans service officer.
It’s 18 hours a week. Right now, I work Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But, my schedule is fairly flexible. And, basically, the way I’m going to approach this job is I’m here to serve the needs of the community. And if it’s a time that I am not normally scheduled to work, my schedule is flexible. All do whatever works best for the clients.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 8:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., generally. And the office is generally manned when Town Hall is open. If I’m not here, Nancy is here in the office. Nancy Stead, who splits her time between Veterans Services and the Planning Board. She’s been a great source of support and direction since I have been on the job.
Q: How large a base — people who you service at this office?
A: Well, I think according to the census, there are 2,000 veterans here in Saugus. The current clientele that we have for our Chapter 115 benefit is only about 45 clients.
Q: So, please tell me about Chapter 115.
A: Chapter 115 is unique benefits program here in Massachusetts. I’m not sure how many other states, if any, have the equivalent of a Chapter 115 Program, which is designed to provide financial support for low income, low asset veterans and or their dependents, widows, etc … And if the clients meet the income and asset eligibility parameters, we can help them with money for their housing expenses, medical expenses, etc … And another thing we do here in the office, we can help veterans or their dependents with their entry into or obtaining information in the VA system. The Veterans Affairs system, where they can get pensions, disabilities, health care, etc… So, we can help on the front end. We can help them negotiate some of the hurdles. But, one of the things that I thought this office can do is try to get our veterans and dependents to “yes.” … to find ways to get benefits for folks that truly need them. Their budgets are always tight. Dollars are precious. So, we want to make sure that veterans and their dependents or survivors that are eligible for the benefits get the benefits that they deserve.
Q: There are some people out there who aren’t taking advantage of benefits that they are entitled to.
A: Yes. And one of the things that I would really like to do is do more outreach in the community. I have transferred my VFW and American Legion memberships to the posts here in town. And that has worked out pretty well, because now I am the chaplain of the VFW Post and I’m the service officer for the Legion Post. And, I hope to do some sessions at the Senior Center and the Housing Authority facilities around town. But I think one of the biggest hurdles that we’re probably going to have — and it’s not confined to this office — because I think you see it in a lot of fraternal organizations these days, is how do we reach the Post 911 veterans? The veterans of the more current conflicts. How do we make sure that they understand that there are benefits that might be available to them and get them those benefits or point them in the direction to get the benefits before they’re in trouble. We want them to understand that these programs are out there if you need them, because a lot of the folks we see, unfortunately, they’re already in trouble before they come into the office. And, I can’t help but think that some of it is a lack of awareness. And hopefully, by doing more outreach in the community, I can do more with that. And I think that some of it is the fear of being perceived as weak or needy or less than a Marine or what have you, by asking for help.
Q: How many do you know of the 2,000 that are in that group?
A: Very few, unfortunately. I have less than a handful of veterans or family members from the 911 conflicts. Most of the demographics of the people that I have been seeing in this office are older Vietnam, Korea and World War II veterans.
Q: How many World War II people do you have — veterans and survivors?
A: They are probably 40 to 50 percent of the clients that I have right now.
Q: And the clients would be like mostly the widows?
A: Yes, mostly widows.
Q: Like, there aren’t too many World War II people still around.
A: No, there aren’t. They’re in their late 80’s or early 90’s.
Q: Maybe there are four or five in the whole town.
A: Yes. And I have a few of them here. I’ve had two guys come in. One Navy and one Army. Both served in Korea and World War II. And, all they wanted were hearing aids. They wanted to see if they could get hearing aids through the VA. And one of the things, and I think this might also be true of the post-911 veterans, is these two gentlemen came in and said “I don’t want to take benefits away from somebody else. They think that by applying for these benefits that somebody else isn’t going to get them. And that’s not true. I told them both and everybody who comes in here if that type of scenario comes up, “You’re entitled to this and more because you put your right hand in the air and swore to defend the constitution of the United States, so, if we can work the system right, hopefully, you will get your hearing aids.” And they have both gotten their hearing aids. And they need them because they’re 90 or 91 years old. One of them did Navy in World War II and Army in Korea. And they were both involved with artillery.
Q: Of the 2000 veterans in town, other than 45 in the high need end, how many do you hear from?
A: Very, very few. I’d love to connect to many more. And that’s what I want to do, either working through or with the DAV, VFW, Legion … working through the local newspapers. Maybe if I put my stuff together, I can put a monthly blurb or column in the there … this is a benefit … this is a benefit. Getting information out there on the benefits that may be available, even if it something that is simple like “you want to go to school or your kids want to go to school.” Just keeping the officer or just the benefits out there in front of the community. If I could figure out a website, maybe I could do some work in there, that way too. But, just doing the outreach and doing the information sharing to hopefully let people know what’s out there. I’m not paid by the veteran. I get paid for my 18 hours and the office is busy, thankfully. I got a lot of people that are knocking on the door. Maybe it’s because they know someone’s here now and there wasn’t before. Maybe it’s the result of stuff that has been in the newspapers, I don’t know. And one person tells another person and tells another person. So, hopefully, we can start a groundswell. Because, I know we run a monthly food pantry at the Senior Center. And we have about 80 people that have signed up for the food pantry. That’s more than I think for Melrose and Wakefield combined. So, being on the Wakefield Veterans Advisory Board, I want to make sure that the people in the community of Wakefield understand it.
Q: And most of those 80 who go to the Saugus Senior Center are from Saugus?
A: Pretty much all Saugus. There might be a few from Revere or Lynn who may not have access to it. Or maybe it’s a situation where they don’t want to stand in line at My Brother’s Table, because they think they’re in a situation where they might be taking something away from somebody. But here, once a month, they can get something. Sometimes there’s frozen meals. Sometimes, there’s canned foods or fresh vegetables. They all walk out of there with a couple of bags of vegetables. We have a fantastic group of volunteers here that will help you carry your bags out, whatever you need. It doesn’t happen without the volunteers. Volunteers are what make it run.
Q: How many volunteers do you have?
A: We probably have 20 volunteers every month. And, Nancy and I could not do it without the volunteers.
Q: What are the most underutilized resources available to the veterans?
A: It’s probably healthcare. Healthcare, I think, has to be number one.
Q: So, it’s something that they could get, but are not applying for?
A: Yea. It’s not easy, especially if you have — like I got a call today from a daughter. And she was interested in healthcare for her dad who is in his late 80’s. But, he doesn’t have a (military) service-connected disability. Nothing that happened to him during his service is affecting him now. He’s just elderly and he has a lot of medications and co-pays. And, that’s a hurdle for him to negotiate with the VA. He has financial resources. Not a lot. But he has some financial resources. That’s a hurdle that he needs to negotiate. So the VA …. If you were able to interview about 100 people on the street, I’m sure the VA would probably get a very negative rating because of all the bad press that it’s gotten. And probably rightfully so, because there have been some horrific stories. And I think we are pretty fortunate around here with the facilities in Bedford and Jamaica Plains and there’s a center in Lynn that I still need to go over and visit. I think we have access to good resources here. But, it’s not easy to get into that system. And, one of the things that I hope we can do in this office is make that entry a little bit easier. And there’s things that people can do online. But many of these people don’t have computers.
Q: Now, the 18 hours-a-week that you work is strictly Saugus? Do you do any of the other communities?
A: No. I don’t. We’re very fortunate here in the district that Karen Burke, who is the district director, at one time was doing all three communities. Now, she’s running the Melrose office. I’m here in Saugus. And we have a brand new VSO in Wakefield, Hector Erinna, who is a Navy vet who has a lot of experience in the VA system. So, Karen has two new guys she’s trying to bring through the system.
Q: In the past, the person you had in Saugus might be working in one or two of the other communities.
A: Right. At one point, we had people doing all three communities. And that’s impossible. That’s impossible. So, we’re fully staffed in the district. Hector is part-time. Karen is full-time. So, even with the part-time VSO here and in Wakefield, we have an assistant who can at least greet the potential clients and provide them with some information, take some documents and just help us start the process. It’s a great job. I’m glad to be here.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: Helping people. It’s just all about helping people, especially our veterans.
Q: What’s the toughest part of your job?
A: Having to tell people “No.” There was a lady who came in yesterday. Her late husband was a Marine reservist and he never deployed. He did the typical reserve, two weeks sometime during the year and one weekend a month. And, because he was never activated or deployed, he’s not considered a veteran. And, I’m sure that we have some people in the National Guard and other reserve services that were never activated or never deployed. They can do 30 years and there out there serving their country. But, in the eyes of the government, they’re not considered veterans. And, I think that’s wrong. There’s been some moves afoot to change that. So, the woman came in. Her husband passed and I had to basically tell her that she wasn’t entitled to any VA benefits.
Q: How many years did her husband do as a Marine reservist?
A: He did six years. And he died shortly after. She said there were some emotional issues that may have contributed to his death.
It’s hard. I don’t know where that line is. You need to ask some personal questions, but I don’t want to invade their privacy.
Q: So, here you have a guy who served in the reserves for six years, and he’s not considered a veteran.
Q: How often do you encounter that?
A: Not very often. Thankfully. Then, maybe it’s a function of the people who are coming into the office. Since 911, we’re seeing a lot of reserves activated and we’ve created a whole new generation of veterans.
Q: Now, do you have a tackle plan — maybe five things you hope to accomplish in your first year?
A: In my first year, I hope to start that outreach that I talked about. And, I want it to be more of a regular outreach plan, in addition to attending monthly meetings at the local posts, maybe quarterly sessions at the Senior Center, something like that. Learning Saugus. Like I said, I know where some of the well-known sites are. I took part in the Procopio Road Race that we had here. Mr. Procopio actually came into the office one day, and I didn’t know who he was.
Q: Are you a runner?
A: Well, I used to be. I’ve run marathons.
Q: Did you do Boston?
A: Yes. I’ve done Boston seven times — twice officially. Five times as a back-of-the-pack rat. I’ve done the Marine Corps twice and Disney once.
Q: How long ago was you last one?
A: The last one was Boston 2005. And I did it like in four hours and 20 minutes. I think I was just burned out on the run. I was able to do the marathon through team training to raise funds for leukemia. That was the only way I was able to do Boston, with a number of people doing it for charity. Back in the day, you used to be able to line up in the back of the line in Hopkinton and just straggle along. My daughter was running in ‘13 when they had that tragedy. She ran in in ‘14 and finished. She’s one and done. She’s done it once and is never going to do it again. But she did it.
Q: Do you have a wish list?
A: Other than increasing awareness here in town.
Since I’ve been here, it’s sort of like I’m drinking at the end of a fire hose. But, I learn things every day. I learn things about the people here. I learn things about Saugus and I learn a lot about my job every day. And I’ve also thought that when you are learning, it doesn’t get any better than that. And I’m helping people. Every day, I’m trying to get people to “yes.” I’m trying to get people benefits that they are entitled to. And, that’s as good as it gets. Thank God I haven’t found myself in a position where I need any of these benefits. When I got all my treatment and care through the VA 20 years ago, I got great experience. And if I can help people have the same type of experience, that’s as good as it gets.
I intend to be very active in the Veterans Council. For the Memorial Day Ceremony, I saw the parade and the ceremony in the cemetery. This was the first time I’ve been here for the parade. It was impressive. And the number of town’s people who were involved, I think it was a tribute to the people in Saugus.