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'It stays busy here'

Read Article from Bristol Herald Courier
August 23, 2020 Sarah Wade, Reporter

‘It stays busy here’
Work picks up quickly for
Sullivan County’s
new veterans service officer
Bristol Herald Courier
August 23, 2020 Sarah Wade, Reporter
Photo by David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier
BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — This summer, under the din of the COVID-19 pandemic and
the protests over George Floyd’s death, the Sullivan County government quietly set up
an office for one of its newest employees: Rex Fink, the county veterans service officer.
Fink heads the Sullivan County Veterans Service Office, which the County Commission
agreed to create through a November 2019 resolution. He was hired in April and trained
during the summer. The county has promised him a full-time secretary. But for now,
Fink is the sole employee in an office launched to help the county’s more than 12,000
veterans access the benefits they’ve earned through their military service.
Sullivan County’s Veterans Service Office
» Veterans Service Officer: Rex Fink
» Address: 3425 Highway 126, Blountville, Tennessee
» Phone: 423-279-2879
» Email:
» Office hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through
Friday, except designated holidays
» What the new office does: Counsel, advise and assist
military service veterans, veterans survivors and their
dependents in obtaining their rightfully earned
benefits. These benefits include compensation,
pension, burial benefits, health benefits, education
benefits, dependency and indemnity compensation.
“Hopefully, I can get as many people in here as possible,” Fink told the Bristol Herald
Courier. “A lot of these guys sacrificed a lot (through their service), and there (are)
certain things that they’re entitled to, and I just want to make sure they get what they
Fink, a lanky 43-year-old whose dark hair has begun to gray, grew up in Church Hill and
graduated from Volunteer High School in 1996. He said his interest in veterans started a
year later, when he joined the Army.
Because Fink is color-blind, his assignment options were limited. He was made a
mortuary affairs specialist — someone who assists with the recovery and care of fallen
“It wasn’t my initial choosing,” Fink said of the position.
But once he got into the work, he said he fell in love with it. He spent several years in
Hawaii in the Central Identification Laboratory, a unit focused on finding and
identifying remains of U.S. military personnel killed in prior foreign conflicts.
Fink then moved to Italy to do similar work with the U.S. Army Africa. Eventually, he
visited almost every country on the African continent. His Army career as a mortuary
affairs specialist also took him to former conflict areas in Germany, Southeast Asia and
the southwestern Pacific region.
“I’ve been to 36 different countries,” Fink said. “[The work] brought a lot of
opportunities that I never would have gotten if I’d stayed around in Church Hill.”
Beyond the travel, he said he found the work deeply compelling.
“We pulled 11 (sets of) remains off of a B-24 in Papua, New Guinea (from) World War
II,” Fink said. “They hadn’t seen American soil since 1942. … It means a lot to bring guys
home (after) 60, 70 years. …”
Fink also had to bring home remains of some of his contemporaries during a tour in
Iraq in 2004 and another in Afghanistan in 2010. He said those assignments were
emotionally taxing.
“Not only (did) we have to get the remains, but … also … the personal effects,” Fink said.
“Letters from home, pictures of families and things like that. It is a very difficult job …
especially when they’re wearing the same uniforms (that you are).”
Rex Fink, who is the new veterans
service officer for Sullivan County,
works the site of a crash from the
Vietnam War in Vinh City, Vietnam,
during his active duty service.
Photo courtesy of Rex Fink
After two decades with the Army, Fink retired as a sergeant first class and returned to
Northeast Tennessee to be close to his family — as well as the VA Medical Center in
Johnson City, which he called “one of the best VAs in the country.”
He spent two years as a code enforcement officer in Johnson City, but by that point, he
said he knew he wanted to devote his career to helping veterans. Fink had his first
chance to do so as a disabled veterans outreach specialist with the Tennessee
Department of Labor. But six months into that work, he heard that Sullivan County was
hiring its first veterans service officer.
While Fink liked the work with the Department of Labor, he said he immediately knew
that the Sullivan County position was the best fit.
Photo by David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier
“The VA is a very complicated system, and I learned working with some of these other
veterans … (that) they don’t have the resources that they need,” Fink said. “I get a lot of
guys in here for stuff that they don’t even realize they’re eligible for. It does something
for me to help these other people.”
After some online course work and a weeklong training session in Nashville, Fink
became an accredited representative with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Essentially, that means that while he’s funded by the county, the VA has authorized him
to help veterans submit their benefits claims.
Once his office opened, he quickly decided to put a waiting bench just outside the door,
he said.
“I haven’t been accredited that long, but it stays busy here,” he said.
Between in-person and phone appointments, he estimated that he’s already seeing nine
to 10 veterans a day. Some need hours of help filling out their paperwork, gathering
evidence to support their claims or just understanding what information they need to
submit to the VA, Fink said. Others are in and out after just a few minutes. Some show
up simply wanting to talk.
» Military service:
— Spent 20 years in U.S. Army as a
mortuary affairs specialist
—Traveled to 36 countries in his
work of finding and recovering
fallen military personnel
— Served tours in Iraq, 2004-2005,
and Afghanistan, 2010-2011
— Retired as a sergeant first class
“Their stories are amazing,” Fink said of his clients. “I’ll sit down here and have a cup of
coffee with them if that’s what they want.”
Fink said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed his ability to reach everyone who needs
help, though. Because of safety concerns, he can’t take paperwork directly to veterans
who are confined to their homes or nursing homes.
Some government offices have also gotten more challenging to work with, Fink said. For
example, he’s trying to help the wife of a deceased veteran get the documents she needs
to submit a survivor’s pension claim.
“She’s having difficulty locating her marriage certificate and (her husband’s) discharge
paperwork, so I’m tracking that down through the National Archives,” Fink said. “But …
they have closed down as well due to this (pandemic). … So it’s really put a strain on
But Fink stressed that he’ll do whatever he can to help Sullivan County’s veterans get the
care they need.
“There’s entitlements that are out there that a lot of veterans don’t know … they are
entitled to,” he said. “I just want the information to get out that … there is someone here
to help.”