DRACUT - The accolades and the honors are nice but Dracut Veterans Agent Bill Zounes is more focused on helping those who have served this country wearing the uniform.
A veteran of the Korean War and the first leg of Vietnam with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne, Zounes has served as Dracut's Veterans Agent for almost 17 years. Shortly after coming to Dracut from Lowell, where he was the city's deputy veterans director, Zounes chaired the newly-established Veterans Park Monument Committee and marshaled enormous support to erect the monuments, benches and flags that grace the entrance to Veterans Memorial Park on Broadway Road. He takes pride in the fact that the lavish memorial, which was dedicated in May 2000, was paid for entirely with private donations.
"Nothing from the state or federal government. No taxpayers' money at all," he says. "After all these years, a special thanks still goes out to Wanda Bozek."
He also serves on the state Executive Board of the Massachusetts Veteran Service Offices Association and in 2006 was named the Massachusetts Veterans Agent of the Year by a six-member committee.
"It was truly humbling," Zounes said at the time. "To get an award like that from your peers is quite an honor."
Zounes has been instrumental in pushing legislation on Beacon Hill to enhance the quality of life for area veterans, such as the creation of the Volunteer Escorted Transportation (VETS) program, or a bill that gives preference to veterans and their spouses seeking public housing.
"It's $60 a brick and you can have three lines," he says, adding that space is limited, however, for names on the monuments. "There is still a sense of pride when I drive by the park or when we have a town function there on Memorial Day or Veterans Day. It still means something. I hope it always will."
Zounes grew up in the Acre section of Lowell -- "Is there anywhere else?" -- and is married to Lynne Brown-Zounes, chief operating officer at New England Community Care. He has two grown children, Maryann and Michael, from a previous marriage.
Q: What is the role of the municipal Veterans Agent in Massachusetts?
A: "In a nutshell, it's to make sure that all the veterans in the community, active and retired, returning veterans from overseas, all those who have served, are familiar with the state program that provides benefits. Massachusetts is very unique in that it is the only state in the country that has such a program for their veterans. It's the state's way of showing their appreciation to our men and women in the Armed Forces."
Q: How does the program work?
A: "Officially, it's Massachusetts General Law 115, CMR (Commonwealth of Massachusetts Regulation) 108. It was initiated in 1861 and has gone through various revisions. It provides benefits for veterans, their spouses, their dependent children and even dependent parents if that's the situation. It is an income-based program. All income is accountable. You come into my office. We go over your income and I can tell you what you are eligible for. It also provides burial benefits and, in some cases, in-state tuition. Basically, that's how the program works."
Q: What are some of the misconceptions that people have about the local Veterans Agent?
A: "Oh, simple. People think that we are the Federal Veterans Administration. I suppose it's easy enough to confuse, but those are two entirely different entities."
Q: What are some of the frustrations you face in your role as Veterans Agent?
A: "There are times when a veteran comes in and I interview him and he just does not qualify for any benefits, or very, very little. I explain it the best that I can but somehow, I'm still the bad guy. Not being able to help someone is terribly frustrating. I've heard a lot of sad stories and it stays with you sometimes. You go home at night and you're still thinking about it. I've had situations where somebody might not be classified as a veteran. They might have military reserve time but there's a distinction between reserve and active duty and that is most likely why they're ineligible. It's tough. It's tough. It's tough."
Q: What are the rewards?
A: "On the other hand, when you can break through all the red tape and actually help somebody, that's the rewarding side of the whole thing and that's my purpose. That's why I'm still here and still working. As I said, every story is hard to listen to. You listen to a kid who just got home from Iraq or Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and he has post-traumatic stress disorder or maybe he or she has lost a limb. I feel like I have an obligation to help these people get everything they're entitled to. Thankfully, there are more happy endings than the other way around. That's what keeps me going."