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Veterans Day

Contra Costa celebrates veterans: ‘They were ordinary people who responded in extraordinary ways in extreme times.’

on November 11, 2022

A room filled with veterans, reservists, family members and public officials went quiet Tuesday as Brig. Gen. Bart Gilbert stepped up to the podium in the Contra Costa County board chambers. Although he is long retired from active duty, his uniform still fits. 

Gilbert was this year’s keynote speaker at the county’s annual Veterans Day ceremony, held a few days before the official holiday, which is Friday. Joining the army when he was 17, Gilbert is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and spent 40 years as an active military member and reservist. He also served the county, as the director of General Services, for two decades. 

Gilbert paid tribute to those serving today, as well as to veterans such as himself, and to the many who “paid the ultimate sacrifice.” He saluted their courage, pride, determination, selflessness and devotion, while reminding the audience that many of them did not ask to leave home to fight in battles overseas.

Veterans Day
Brig. Gen. Bart Gilbert delivers the keynote address at the Contra Costa Veterans Day ceremony. (Jule Hermann)

“They went and were called to be part of something bigger than themselves by serving their country. They were ordinary people who responded in extraordinary ways in extreme times,” he said.

At the ceremony, Contra Costa County did not just honor its 72,000 veterans for Veterans Day, but also celebrated the 75th anniversary of the county’s Veterans Service Office. 

After the presentation of the colors by students from the Heritage High School Air Force Junior ROTC in Brentwood, and the National Anthem sung by the Ladies First choir from Concord High School, Air Force reservist Staff Sgt. Stephen Griswold III acknowledged World War II and Vietnam veterans, as well as active duty members, reservists, National Guard members and their families, who call Contra Costa County home. 

“Ingrained in the culture of military service is the idea of service. That service doesn’t end when you hang up your uniform for the last time, but continues to be a part of you in all aspects of your life” said Griswold, who works in the office of county Supervisor Diane Burgis. 

Griswold said many of the veteran service organizations today were inspired by that desire to continue serving after leaving the military.

Veterans Day
The presentation of the colors by students from the Heritage High School Air Force Junior ROTC in Brentwood. (Jule Hermann)

One of those organizations is the Veterans Service Office, which provides a bridge between veterans and the federal Veterans Affairs office, where they receive benefits. Since 1946, Veterans Service has helped veterans and their families obtain the benefits they are eligible for. In its 2022 report, the California Association of County Veterans Service Officers said that roughly 66,000 veterans in California miss out on their rightful benefits, a loss of approximately $1.1 billion in VA benefits.

Carol Prell, Veterans Service executive secretary, said even a small mistake when filling out the form can lead to the unnecessary denial of rightful benefits. 

“We help them understand what benefits they might be eligible for and how to apply for those benefits,” Prell said.

This year, Congress passed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 to improve health care access to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances such as Agent Orange, a defoliant that many Vietnam veterans were exposed to. The VA’s list of presumptive diseases caused by Agent Orange includes over 20 types of cancer and other illnesses.

“The implementation of the PACT Act opened up even more benefits for Vietnam veterans,” Prell said. “What they are eligible for is always an evolving process.” 

Veterans Day
Staff Sgt. Stephen Griswold III addresses the audience, which includes many veterans. (Jule Hermann)

According to the VA website, veterans must show an official diagnosis, as well as proof that they served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 to be eligible for benefits related to Agent Orange and PACT. 

Prell said once a veteran’s eligibility is established, they can get the health care they need as well as compensation.

Dennis Giacovelli, president of Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley, attended this year’s county ceremony with longtime friends John Garfield Reese and Robert Sada, who also are part of the group. Because of the pandemic, the ceremony was in person for the first time in two years, and the Diablo Valley vets noticed some familiar faces were missing. 

“We’ve noticed just in our membership, people who are only in their 70s are dying pretty quickly,” Giacovelli said. “A lot of those things are Agent Orange related.” 

After three tours in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Reese receives Agent Orange-related health care benefits from the VA. He said vets were exposed to the chemical everywhere during their time in Vietnam — in the water they waded through, the air they breathed and the equipment they touched. He feels grateful for the help he receives from the local VA health care system in Contra Costa County.

“We are so blessed and so fortunate to have a good health care system for veterans that utilize the VA system,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, they’re there to stand up and take care of it.” 

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