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For Some Former Service Members, 'Ask The Question' Campaign Redefines 'Veteran'

Peter Biello
Lillian Morris of Berlin served as nurse during World War II.

It's a deceptively simple question: "Have you or a family member ever served in the military?" The state launched a program two years ago to get doctors, police officers, educators, and others to ask that question.

The aim was to identify people who qualify for veterans benefits. The results have been, for many people, surprising.

Ninety-eight year old Lillian Morris of Berlin doesn't talk much about her days as an Army nurse during World War II. She doesn't want to be the kind of veteran who tells war stories non-stop.

"It used to drive me crazy about especially old people, telling you the same story over and over and over again," she says.

Morris could tell you stories—stories about caring for soldiers in France and how happy she and her fellow nurses were when the war finally came to an end. But Morris says she doesn't really consider herself a veteran.

"Because it was only two years," she said. "At the time it was necessary to go and serve and I'm glad I did, but I wouldn't want it as a regular life."

For most of her life, Lillian Morris didn't pursue veterans benefits like VA health care, though her husband, who also served, did.

Then one day she had a conversation with someone from ServiceLink Aging and Disability Resource Center. She was looking for someone to help her with housework. ServiceLink asked her: "Have you or a family member ever served in the military?" She said: yes. 

It turned out there weren't any services that could help her with housework. But Paul Robitaille at ServiceLink says the Ask the Question campaign is drawing out veterans like Morris.

"I had a Vietnam veteran in here. I asked him if he was a veteran. He said, 'No.' I reworded the question. 'Have you served in the military?' He said 'yes.'"

From there, Robitaille says he learned that this man lost his brother in Vietnam, and in his mind, his brother was the real veteran. Robitaille says he convinced him otherwise.

"And we were able to refer him to VA services, which he was able to eventually enroll in and get, and I believe he's still receiving," Robitaille says.

Robitaille says some veterans don't want to identify as such because of the things they did in wartime. Others simply don't think someone's a veteran unless they've seen combat. 

"To me, anybody who puts on that uniform is a veteran," Robitaille says. 

To be eligible for a benefit, a veteran may have had to wear that uniform for a certain length of time. Some benefits also require the veteran to have a good discharge status. 

Some veterans benefits also extend to family members, which is why the official question of the campaign is: "Have you or a family member ever served in the military?"

Gina Belanger with the Family Resource Center in Gorham says she's always on the look-out for family members of veterans.

"You can't have your husband be gone for 15 months and not have it impact you," she says. "You can't be a child that goes to school and her dad or his dad is deployed, and you can't be a grandmother with grandchildren who are kind of heartbroken that their dad is deployed."

The Ask the Question campaign is no longer getting state funding, with the exception of some money to maintain a website, but service providers are still asking it.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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