A Richland man who’s helped file more than 31,000 claims for VA assistance for veterans and their families is quick to shrug off any praise for his work.
“I ain’t nothing but a secretary with hairy legs,” said Steve Prince, who served in the Marine Corps.
The gruff but kind-hearted 64-year-old works for Vietnam Veterans of America in Pasco helping veterans from World War II to Afghanistan file their paperwork.
It’s a full-time gig. The veterans he’s assisted receive about $3 million a month in VA claims, he said. He’s been filing VA claims for about 21 years.
Prince is quick to point out that “it’s the vet who comes in with a problem” and that he’s just more familiar with the seven pages of instructions on the VA forms than most.
Veterans must provide power of attorney for Prince to submit claims on their behalf.
Prince has met veterans in airports, prisons, at the Fiery Foods Festival, senior homes and coffee shops.
Some who served in the military suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and are afraid to walk into Prince’s office because they might feel confined. So Prince visits them elsewhere, said retired Army lieutenant colonel Skip Novakovich, president of the Port of Kennewick Commission.
“He makes sure they know they’re OK and they open up and Steve makes sure they get the benefits they deserve,” Novakovich said. “He beats the service of the VA hands down.”
Prince said veterans share a special connection. “I know what they’ve been through,” he said.
He told one story about an $80,000 check one of his clients — an “old sailor” who was homeless — received that included back pay, a monthly stipend and free medical and dental care.
“I’m continuing to do it because I love my vets. I am one. I lost a lot of friends who were vets,” Prince said.
He’s also lost family.
His brother Rex Prince of Kennewick, a Marine helicopter mechanic, died of heart problems at age 47. A week after his brother died, Prince found out he was eligible to receive free heart medication through the VA. His brother didn’t know he qualified for assistance and couldn’t afford medical care.
“He has a tremendous heart for veterans because of his background with his brother, obviously. He has a tremendous heart to serve veterans who don’t know what to do,” said Novakovich, who’s known Prince for 10 years.
Prince said he simply wants to ensure the government’s guaranteed medical coverage is provided to veterans who qualify.
“When I enlisted, I was told I’d never have to worry about health care. I want to make sure the government delivers on its promise,” he said.
Prince spent four years in the Marines, from 1970-74, providing security for President Richard Nixon at Camp David and in San Clemente, California.
“I liked Nixon a lot as a person. You can’t have any politics. I knew him as a person, not as a president,” Prince said.
Prince worked for 23 years on the Hanford Patrol before a heart attack disqualified him from service.
As he helps veterans navigate the complex VA system, he must deal with his own medical challenges. He has Type 2 diabetes, cataracts, peripheral neuropathy and has had three heart attacks, leaving him with half a working heart. He also has three brain aneurysms that could rupture at any time.
Prince said he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. “I do the best I can with the time I have,” he said.
And a good chunk of that time is spent filing VA paperwork.
Prince started doing the work as a volunteer but since has become a paid employee of the Vietnam Veterans of America, which the state VA contracts with.
He says the most important part of his job is listening to vets. He’s also honest with them. If a veteran doesn’t qualify for VA services, he lets them know. “I’ve got vets who need help who flat out don’t qualify and I’ll tell them so,” he said.
To reach Prince, call 509-460-4703 or visit him at the Goodwill Industries building, 3521 W. Court St., in Pasco. His office hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Wednesdays, he visits those who are home bound and senior citizens.
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