Army veteran Charlene Jorge poses in her office at the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission in Cleveland on Thursday. (Mark Duncan/The Associated Press)
CINCINNATI — Veterans who served in Iraq during the war only have a few months left to claim Ohio bonuses of up to $1,500, and state officials are expanding their efforts to reach potentially thousands of veterans who may miss out by not applying.
This week, the Ohio Department of Veterans Services will release public service announcements about the bonuses. They also are mailing out more than 49,000 postcards to those who identify themselves as veterans on driver's license renewals and who fall in the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated age range for Iraq veterans.
Army veteran Charlene Jorge, who served in Iraq, applied early for her bonus.
"I feel very fortunate to have received it and grateful to Ohioans for recognizing our service this way," said Jorge, who used the extra $1,300 on bills and other necessities.
"There are no strings attached, so you can use it for whatever you need," said the 36-year-old Jorge, who lives in Cleveland.
Ohio voters in 2009 approved a $200 million bond issue to fund bonuses for veterans of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq war eras. The Persian Gulf-era application period ended last year, and veterans who served within Iraq's borders from March 19, 2003, through Dec. 31, 2011, only have until year's end to file their applications. Others who have served in Afghanistan or elsewhere since Oct. 7, 2001, can continue to apply after Dec. 31 because no deadline has been set for that bonus period.
More than $66 million already has been paid to more than 82,000 Ohioans from all three periods, but state veterans officials say the number of eligible veterans remaining is difficult to determine — especially because federal statistics often cover wider time periods than those set for the bonuses. The VA estimates that over 100,000 Ohioans have served since 9/11, and Department of Defense figures show more than 82,000 service members from Ohio have been deployed since 2001, with some deploying multiple times.
"We have pressed to get the word out, but no matter how much we try, there always seems to be someone who didn't hear about it," said Tim Gorrell, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. "We want to avoid someone applying when it's too late."
State officials and county veterans commissions have also reached out through traditional ads, social media, veterans events and other ways. But some veterans hesitate to apply.
"I didn't want to take it initially," said Army veteran Daniel Reale, who served in Iraq. "I was just doing my job and what I believed in. It wasn't about money."
But veterans officials in Clermont County persuaded him to apply, he said.
"They said it wasn't a handout but just a way of saying thank you," said Reale, 27, of Batavia, in southwestern Ohio.
He said he used his $1,500 bonus to pay bills and take care of his two daughters, even putting some money into savings.
"It helped tremendously, and now I always tell others to apply," he said.
Eligible veterans must have been Ohio residents when entering the service and applying for bonuses. They also must have served at least 90 days of active duty — excluding training — in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Ohio National Guard or reserves. Bonus amounts are higher for those who served in the countries of Iraq or Afghanistan.
While veterans can receive up to $1,500, family members of those killed in action or who died from injuries or disease resulting from service in Iraq or Afghanistan war zones could receive up to $6,500.
Other states have offered veterans bonuses for various conflicts or other types of military service, including West Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Illinois and South Dakota.