CLINTON — Ed Staszewski owes his life to veterans.

“If it wasn’t for all the dog-faced GIs that liberated Germany, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “So I owe a lot to veterans. That’s why I’ve got a big respect for these guys.”

Staszewski was born in a displaced persons camp in 1946 after his parents were removed from Poland in 1940. He was only 3 years old when his family came to America.

He, himself, knows all too well the experiences of a veteran. Staszewski left college at the age of 21 to enter the Army. After a tour in Vietnam, Staszewski attended Military Police school and became a member of the MP before serving as a company clerk. After his service was complete, Staszewski returned to the United States and used his GI Bill to go back to college. He then became a police officer, working 27 years in Clinton.

Today, Staszewski has dedicated his life to helping veterans as the director of the Clinton County Department of Veterans Affairs. The main focus of his work is to help area veterans get the health care and compensation they deserve.

“I’m here because of these people, the World War II, Korean War, Vietnam and other veterans because they got injured,” Staszewski said. “I want to help them get connected with programs that can benefit them.”

Staszewski and his assistant in DeWitt, Ed Gaudet, work to help area veterans sign up for programs through the Veterans Administration and try to get compensation for their service-connected injuries.

“So maybe these guys or their wife can get some kind of pension,” he said.

Much of Staszewski’s time during the day is spent talking with veterans, helping them learn about state and federal programs that can help them, such as registering for health care or compensation. He helps some veterans apply for the state’s Veterans Property Tax Credit or financing for higher education. If a veteran has lost discharge papers or medals, Staszewski can help with the paperwork to get new ones.

He also can help veterans seek access to medical records, file claims for illnesses or appeal claim denials for illnesses, some of which the veterans may be seeing the initial signs of decades after their service.

“I still have Vietnam vets coming in now because some problems develop in later years,” he said. He said that as many as 12 cancers have been associated with exposure to Agent Orange. Staszewski added that today’s veterans are coming home from the Middle East with similar problems.

He advised that soldiers are returning to America and showing signs of skin and breathing problems. He said doctors have termed their disease Gulf War Syndrome, illnesses developing from smoke from oil fires, contact with depleted uranium and possibly chemicals in the sand.

“It’s going to take several years for these symptoms to start showing up,” he said.

Staszewski is happy to see today’s veterans come home to a warm welcome. He gives credit and recognition to local veterans groups and Ladies Auxiliary organizations. He said he would like to see more of today’s returning veterans join veterans groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS or the American Legion.

“We need them now, we’ve got to keep these veterans organizations going. Without them, we lost a lot of our clout trying to get bills passed and more benefits for our veterans,” said Staszewski. “We’re losing a lot of clout in Congress to push for veterans affairs. Its going to get worse because they’re not providing the funding. That’s why we support the vets who run for office.”

He regularly encourages veterans to contact their legislators in an effort to make sure veterans’ voices are heard.

“There are approximately 25 million veterans. When you put those 25 million people together, that’s 25 million votes. That’s why we’ve got to stick together as veterans. I don’t care if you wore white in the Navy or green in the Army, I don’t care what party you are,” said Staszewski. “Our obligation is to take care of them, their wives and their children. Iowa is rated 50th, at the bottom in state benefits for veterans, and Illinois is rated 49th, so we’ve got to work on that to get veterans more benefits. I hope the Congress and these newly elected officials support our veterans.”

In recent years, the Department of Veterans Affairs took over organizing rides for area veterans to get to the VA hospital in Iowa City. Staszewski said two vans are operated solely by volunteers who transport veterans to doctors’ appointments they might not otherwise be able to attend.

“The guys who drive are great. You just can’t thank them enough for what they do. It means a lot,” Staszewski said. “They deserve a lot of thanks. You’ve really got to appreciate what these guys are doing.”

Staszewski said the program is for any area veteran and the program serves a wide region.

“This is a good benefit for guys who don’t drive,” he said. “It’s a very good program and I’d like to keep it going.”

One of the reasons Staszewski enjoys his work is the chance to talk to veterans about their experiences.

“These guys got a really good story to tell,” he said. “I really enjoy talking to them.”

Every chance he gets, he encourages local veterans to record their personal stories and submit them to the Library of Congress.

“I tell these guys they ought to write down what they did,” Staszewski said. “It’s interesting. It’s part of history. And once these guys are gone, their stories are gone too.”

Staszewski said he finds his work very rewarding.

“You get a feeling like you are helping these guys and that’s why you do this,” he said. He encourages every area veteran, no matter where or when they served or where they live now, to contact him if they need help.

“It all starts with a phone call. All they’ve got to do is call and talk to me. Many of these vets don’t know what assistance is out there,” Staszewski said. “If you’ve got a question, call me. Or if you have a friend that needs help. That’s why I’m here, is to help these guys. When they get an award letter from the VA, they’re happy and I’m happy, and that’s what it’s all about.”

To contact Staszewski at the Clinton County Commission of Veterans Affairs, call 242-1151.

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