Francisca Benitez

Byron Whipple has been the Union County veteran service officer for 10 years. After a fruitful decade at the La Grande Center for Human Development, he is retiring this month.

As a veteran service officer, Whipple helps make sure veterans are getting the benefits they qualify for and that they are connected to all the services they can utilize.

“Our job here is to assist veterans in anything they need,” Whipple said.

He often helps veterans submit applications to the veterans affairs department that result in them getting a larger monthly check in benefits each month, or even a large sum of back pay. The process can be long and difficult, as there is a lot of paperwork, and evidence from doctors must be collected for injuries. It can be tricky and hard to navigate, and Whipple helps make it easier.

Whipple served in the Navy for 22 years beginning just after he graduated high school in Rogue River until he retired as master chief petty officer in 2003. He wore many hats during his years in the Navy, including anti-submarine air controller, air intercept control supervisor and anti-terrorism training officer.

Whipple said his experience in the Navy prepared him for his job with CHD in many ways. For one, veterans find it easier to talk to him once they realize he’s a veteran, too. His role in the Navy also gave him experience helping others.

“As the chief petty officer, your job is to take care of your people,” he said.

Whipple has achieved a lot in his time with CHD.

“He’s doing what’s right for the veterans,” said Susan Cederholm, HR administrator at CHD. “He’s such an asset to our community.”

She recalled the very first year he worked at CHD, Whipple was awarded Service Officer of the Year by the American Legion Department of Oregon. She said since he started he has gone above and beyond to help veterans in Union County, and she will be sad to see him go.

“He’s a pleasure to be around, and he’s also got a great sense of humor,” she said.

It’s difficult — even for Whipple — to list all of the projects that he has been involved in over the years. He helped organize the vision service plan van, which provided 50 eye exams and 50 pairs of glasses to veterans and their families at no cost to them. Whipple remembered it fondly.

“I still smile thinking about the day that the van came,” he said.

He helped secure funding that created a program with Community Connections that helps get free transportation for veterans.

He has helped find housing for homeless veterans, given them the supplies that they need, and helped them connect with employers or get job training or a higher education.

Whipple helped create a ski day at Anthony Lakes where veterans and their families can come ski or snowboard for free, rentals, lunch and lessons included. Whipple said it’s a fun day, but it’s also an opportunity to connect veterans with more services.

“It’s geared toward the younger veterans that we don’t see a lot in the office,” he said. “It’s a way for us to reach out to them and see what they need.”

Whipple said although the big projects he’s worked on have been rewarding, he also strives to help veterans with little things He said some of his fondest memories are of helping one person with something as small as replacing a set of dentures for a veteran’s widow.

“It’s the little things like that where you can help people through a stressful situation and make their day,” he said.

He said he has become so close with the community of roughly 2,300 veterans in Union County that he thinks of them as friends.

He is far from finished helping veterans, as he plans to volunteer during his retirement.

“This is not the end,” he said.

Whipple is extremely humble when it comes to his achievements.

“The things I’ve accomplished, I could not have done by myself. I am a cog in the wheel of community partners,” he said.

Whipple’s successor, Brian Blaise, has worked alongside Whipple for almost two years now in preparation. Blaise, a veteran himself, said he first met Whipple when Whipple approached him to come into his office and learn about benefits and services.

“He cornered me up at the university and said you’ve got to come in,” he said. “It just blew my mind that there was somebody doing this, actually advocating for veterans. I told him right then and there ‘I want to do what you do.’”

Blaise, who is from Union, said he was inspired by Whipple to get a degree in sociology and eventually apply to the position.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden expressed his appreciation for Whipple’s work.

“Byron has set the bar high when it comes to innovation and effectiveness that helps veterans in Union County,” he said in a statement to The Observer. “I know rural veterans have long counted on Byron’s ingenuity and work ethic to create strong outreach programs.”

Wyden will honor Whipple’s time with CHD at the April 13 Union County town hall at 5:30 p.m. in La Grande.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer