Jefferson Awards for Public ServiceBy Sharon Chin

MARTINEZ (CBS SF) — U.S. military veterans can go through a maddening mountain of red tape and roadblocks in applying for government benefits available to them. But a Bay Area woman has spent the last 35 years fighting on the frontlines to get these American heroes their benefits.

Jill Martinez made history as the first non-veteran and first woman hired in 1986 as a Veterans Service Representative. She’s worked for the Contra Costa County Veterans Service Office, which today serves more than 9,000 veterans a year.

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“My main thing is caring. I just love what I do,” said Martinez.

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The military is in her blood: Her grandfather served in the Army in World War I, her father served in World War II, and her son – a retired Navy commander – in the Persian Gulf.

For 25 years, Martinez helped many elderly veterans and their families, through the often painstaking process of filing for federal and state benefits.

She pushed through a two-and-a-half year claim for a 93-year-old Woman’s Army Corps veteran from WWII.

“Got the retro check for $37,000,” Martinez said. “She died three days later.”

Martinez says the process has improved over the year, especially with technology.

“My quickest pension claim was 11 days, I had 65 pages of everything that was needed on that claim,” she stated.

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Martinez retired in 2011 on a Friday, then came back on Monday, to the same office, and the same job, but as a volunteer. She’s opted to volunteer the last ten years so she could make her own schedule.

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She works 30 hours a week, plus she has coffee club meet-ups six days a week with veterans like Ronald Russo, a Vietnam War combat photographer who described the headache of applying for benefits before he met Martinez.

“You send in paperwork, you wait and wait and wait,” said Martinez. “There’s no one to call, you don’t know who to check with.”

Now, Martinez is his guide.

“I’m grateful she’s there. She’s got my back,” he smiled.

Linda Trevarthen said Martinez has come alongside during trying times — after the death of her father, senior Navy chief Frank Griego who served twice in Vietnam — and her mother, who needs care.

“And it was Jill who’s helping us,” Trevarthen said. “She even helped us when we put my dad to rest. He’s at Santa Fe National Cemetery.”

A wall full of birthday greetings in Martinez’ office show appreciation for the 72-year-old who doesn’t give up and doesn’t plan to retire from her volunteer job.

“I’m still looking for vets I can help,” she said.

So for decades as a relentless advocate for military veterans and families applying for government benefits, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Jill Martinez.

For military veterans or family of a veteran in Contra Costa County who need help accessing benefits, you may contact Jill Martinez at jill@vs.cccounty.us

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