Contra Costa Celebrates Veterans: “They were ordinary people who reacted in extraordinary ways in extreme times.” – Richmond Confidential | Team Cansler

A room full of veterans, reservists, family members and officials went quiet Tuesday as Brig. Gen. Bart Gilbert took the podium in the Contra Costa County board chambers. Although he has long since retired from active service, 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, Friday. Gilbert joined the Army at 17, is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and spent 40 years as an active duty military man and reservist. He also served the county for two decades as Director of General Services.

Gilbert recognized those who serve today, as well as veterans like himself and the many who “made the ultimate sacrifice.” He saluted their courage, pride, determination, selflessness and dedication, and reminded the audience that many of them did not ask to leave their homes to fight overseas.

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

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

At the ceremony, Contra Costa County not only honored its 72,000 veterans on Veteran’s Day, but also celebrated the 75th anniversary of the county’s Veterans Service Office.

Following the presentation of the colors by students at Heritage High School Air Force Junior ROTC in Brentwood and the national anthem sung by Concord High School’s Ladies First Choir, Reserved Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen Griswold III paid tribute to veterans of World War II and Vietnam as well as active duty members, reservists, members of the National Guard and their families who call Contra Costa County home.

“Service is ingrained in the culture of military service. This ministry does not end when you hang up your uniform for the last time, but remains a part of you in all aspects of your life,” said Griswold, who works in County Supervisor Diane Burgis’ office.

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

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

One such organization is the Veterans Service Office, which provides a bridge between veterans and the Federal Office of Veterans Affairs, where they receive benefits. Since 1946, the Veterans Service has helped veterans and their families receive the benefits they deserve. In its 2022 report, the California Association of County Veterans Service Officers said about 66,000 veterans in California are missing out on their rightful benefits, representing a loss of about $1.1 billion in VA benefits.

Carol Prell, executive secretary of the Veterans Service, said even a small error in filling out the form could result in the unnecessary denial of legitimate benefits.

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

That year, Congress passed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 to increase access to health care for veterans exposed to toxic substances like Agent Orange, a defoliant to which many Vietnam veterans were exposed. The VA’s list of suspected diseases caused by Agent Orange includes over 20 types of cancer and other diseases.

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

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

According to the VA website, veterans must present an official diagnosis and proof of having served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 to be eligible for Agent Orange and PACT-related benefits.

Prell said once a veteran’s eligibility is determined, they can receive the healthcare they need, as well as compensation.

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

“We’ve just noticed in our membership that people who are only in their 70s die pretty quickly,” Giacovelli said. “A lot of these things have to do with Agent Orange.”

After three tours in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Reese receives Agent Orange-related healthcare benefits from the VA. He said veterinarians 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 is 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 using the VA system,” he said. “No matter what happens, they are there to stand up and take care of it.”

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