INDIANAPOLIS — Kelly Sherwood needed help.
Sherwood, a disabled Army veteran living in Indianapolis, exhausted his savings after both his central air conditioning unit and his vehicle’s engine both stopped working.
"It was raining bucks on me at that point,” said Sherwood. “I sucked up my pride and made a phone call.”
Sherwood applied for and received $2,500 through the state’s Military Family Relief Fund, a fund generated from military license plate revenue—meant to help veterans in need with food, housing, transportation, utilities and other needs.
“It really helped out,” said Sherwood. “It came in quite handy.”
The problem—many veterans have no idea the Military Family Relief Fund even exists.
“A lot of people don’t know about it,” said Sherwood.
The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) is looking to change that.
A new law takes effect July 1 that aims to raise awareness about the fund for the half a million veterans living in Indiana and their families.
Starting July 1, when you purchase a military license plate, up to 10% will go toward marketing and promotion of the fund.
“We want to be able to reach those areas of the population that we are not able to reach right now,” said Dennis Wimer, director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs. “Hopefully we can utilize some TV, radio, social media but not every veteran is on social media.”
Senate Enrolled Act 316 says IDVA can’t use the 10% for administrative costs including pay roll.
“We are not going to hire staff with this fund,” said Wimer. “We aren’t going to do other things with this fund that are not related to the Military Family Relief Fund. This is 100% about getting more people into the fund and getting more money out the door.”
Wimer emphasized the state has approximately $10 million in license plate revenue and from a trust fund, just waiting for veterans to benefit from.
The new law, Senate Enrolled Act 316, gets rid of restrictions that previously meant IDVA had to deny 75% of applications for assistance.
For example, starting July 1 veteran applicants no longer have to prove their hardship is a result of their military service.
“We deny 50% of our applicants because they can’t tie their need back to their military service,” said Wimer.
The state is also removing the requirement that you have to have served during wartime.
They’re also getting rid of the requirement that you have to serve on active duty for a year to get MFRF benefits.
"We want to include as many veterans as possible,” said Wimer.
Not all veterans were in favor of this legislation.
Some testified against it, especially a provision that allows some veterans to receive benefits if they served under other than honorable conditions.
"For those of us who got honorable discharges, it minimizes the importance of an honorable discharge," veteran Lori Turpin said in January.
"I don't think the citizens of the state, and members of our coalition, don't want to pay for someone who didn't serve under an honorable condition," General James Bauerle said in January.
Wimer emphasized that veterans with bad conduct or dishonorable discharges will still not be eligible to receive MFRF benefits.
Wimer said “other than honorable” discharges are typically administrative in nature such as a veteran who was unwilling to get the anthrax vaccine, or a veteran who has struggled with substance abuse.
Some veterans also criticized the legislation because they said the state should use its own budget, not license plate revenue, to promote the Military Family Relief Fund.
“I want to thank everyone who testified and gave their input,” said Wimer. “Their work was heard and their work impacted this bill.”
Wimer said he plans to work with veterans groups, including veterans who were critical of the legislation, to help get the word out about the new law.
In 2018, WRTV Investigates uncovered IDVA gave out Military Family Relief Fund benefits beyond the $2,500 limit including to IDVA’s own employees.
WRTV Investigates asked what kind of oversight will happen when it comes to the new law, and Wimer said the Indiana Veterans Commission will be the checks and balances.
“We will report to them here’s how it was spent,” said Wimer.