VALPARAISO — John Papka is a man of service.
He’s assistant fire chief for the Hobart Fire Department who became an EMT in 1991 and joined the force as a firefighter five years later.
He’s a Navy and Army veteran who served 23 years, nine months in active duty and the reserves.
From seeing combat in the first Gulf War to serving a 14-month deployed rotation in Afghanistan, the now retired National Guard member has been through and seen a lot of things — “some tragedies,” as he calls them.
As the chapter service officer for the Porter County NWI DAV Chapter 102 — an organization he helped charter nearly six years ago — Papka has made it his mission to help other local veterans who have experienced “tragedies” receive all the benefits they deserve.
In his chapter role, Papka spends hours during each monthly meeting at VFW Post 998 in Valparaiso, filing claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans that may have been previously denied or not have known such benefits existed.
The claims filed are primarily for disability compensation and pension, he said.
“I got my neck broke in Afghanistan, and it took nine years with the VA to rate. I thought, ‘How many others are like me who have been suffering?’ I wanted to help give everyone what they are truly entitled to,” Papka said. “I find it to be educational, rewarding but more than that, an honor."
Getting to 100
Once a compensation or pension claim is filed with the VA, the department determines the level of disability, if it is service-connected and if the condition of the veteran should receive an increased rating due to it worsening, according to the VA. Disabilities determined to be related to military service can lead to monthly nontaxable compensation, enrollment in the VA health care system, a 10-point hiring preference for federal employment and other important benefits.
“The VA will declare an illness, injury or aggravated injury or illness to at least 10 percent and move all the way to 100,” Papka said. “We work to maximize these percentages.”
Every 10 percent increase warrants celebration, Papka said, as rating decisions and claims awarded to veterans don’t always happen quickly.
In fact, most veterans who turn to the DAV Chapter 102 are often shocked they can even receive help in the first place, said Mitch Mullins, chapter adjutant and army veteran who served in the military from 1971 to 1998.
“There is a shroud of disbelief and doubt that we can do what we say we do. Once they come and sit down and talk with us, you can see this relief come over them that there is a chance,” Mullins said. “Then when they get some results, it lightens the burden on their shoulders.”
“It doesn’t take care of the cancer, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and belly shots. But it does help justify where they were drafted, doing what they were told to do and provide a little bit of financial support,” Papka added.
During every monthly meeting, which is open to both DAV members and visiting veterans and families, service officers ask the crowd to share any updates or successes they may have.
Recently, Papka said a veteran went from being at a 20 percent rating at the beginning of the meeting to a 70 percent by the time he was ready to leave for the night. It only took three months for it to go up after seeking help from the chapter.
For a decade, no one was able to help him, Papka said.
“He goes, ‘Can I shake your hand, John? When I first got here you were running around like a wild man. I thought these Keystone Cops couldn’t help,’” Papka said of the veteran, replying, “’You’re right. I know it looks unorganized and a total disarray, but no true combat unit ever passed the garrison inspection.’ He laughed and knew exactly what I meant.”
Each year, Mullins said, the chapter has averaged around $14 million in compensation increases and initial claims for veteran benefits.
Sharing war stories
When the chapter started hosting meetings at the post, only 27 veterans belonged to the DAV. Today, it has more than 200 members.
DAV Chapter 102, which meets on the fourth Friday of every month, provides a variety of services to veterans from transportation and job assistance to outreach programs and education opportunities.
The veterans also provide “a kind of therapy” to each other, Papka said.
“It’s very neat to watch someone say, ‘I was in Đắk Tô (village in Vietnam)’ and another guy goes, ‘Well, I was right around there. I was near Hill — what year were you there? What unit?’ All of a sudden, there is a bond that they didn’t know” Papka said, adding that the transition back to civilian life can be physically, emotionally and financially straining for returning veterans.
“For my Iraq and Afghanistan vets, I can tell you what 135 degrees feels like, and then four months later when it’s 55 below in the mountains without the wind chill. But it’s hard for just anyone to grasp. Or, not to get too graphic … I don’t come home and say ‘Oh, I saw kids get run over by tracks,’ or ‘I know the smell of a corpse that has been out for days.’ You don’t talk about that. But maybe Mitch and I will, or the collective group, because they won’t judge. They understand. They get it.”
Nearly 1 in 4 active duty members showed signs of a mental health condition, according to a 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry. Many veterans suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Listening and sharing war stories can sometimes be “emotionally and mentally draining” for the veterans, but Papka and Mullins said they wouldn’t have it any other way.
All that matters is that their fellow veterans have someone to talk to and rely on.
“While I was in the military, I contracted a life-ending autoimmune disease. I know my days are finite on this earth, but I keep plugging away. They are what keeps me going and wanting to give back,” Mullins said with a beer in hand and smile on his face, looking around at his war heroes hanging out at the Valparaiso VFW Post.
A helping hand
As Hobart Fire Lt. Robert Scott said, Papka “goes out of his way” to assistant all veterans during his off time and “does a great job at it.”
When he’s not at the fire station, Papka is putting in more than 40 volunteer hours a week supporting anyone who needs it.
He answers late night phone calls from those who have questions about their benefits or “just want someone to talk to.” He responds to service calls from veterans who need assistance getting out of their house to an appointment. He frequently visits surrounding American Legion and VFA Posts in the Region and hosts lectures and seminars with Jaimmie Zajicek, certified service officer.
“There’s not a spot where I can’t walk in and they go, ‘Hey, the service officer is here,’” Papka said.
Any veteran who is looking for help or would like to join the Porter County NWI DAV Chapter 102 is encouraged to attend the next monthly meeting, April 26 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at VFW Post 998, 705 Roosevelt Road, Valparaiso.