Las Vegas-based Veteran Benefits Guide has helped thousands of local veterans navigate the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ complex disability system, providing consultation to customers before and after they file a disability claim, said Donato Clay, chief operating officer.

Clay and his colleagues have seen clients be compensated what they deserve and use it to pay their mortgage, save for retirement or even adopt a child.

“It allows someone to still push through to achieve their goals, or their dreams even, because they know that they have this tax-free benefit that’s available to them,” said Clay, a U.S. Army veteran. “It makes life a lot easier.”

Because of the bureaucracy involved in any process at the VA, there’s a lot of information about disability compensation that doesn’t always get communicated effectively, even if that’s not the intent of the department, Clay said.

People who do choose to go through the process often receive a decision letter almost 100 pages long, he said, that may be difficult to understand or give an inaccurate rating to their claim.

He pointed to a married couple that were both “underrated” after initially filing disability claims. With the help of the Veteran Benefits Guide, both of their ratings went up by 30% or more, so that the couple received their benefits at a much higher rate. Neither knew they could file for the increase before encountering the company, Clay said.

“And so that’s a very common response or story that we hear from veterans who we’ve helped, that we helped guide them or give them almost white-glove service in a very administrative bureaucratic process that they didn’t know was possible,” he said. “And so it’s been highly positive.”

Lisa Kalkes, chief marketing officer for Veteran Benefits Guide and also an Army veteran, said the company’s research found that a large majority of veterans don’t file for disability benefits because they fear the complex and timely process, they think they’re ineligible because they never deployed or they worry they’ll take money from somebody who “had it worse.”

“They’re not optimistic about the outcome they’ll receive,” Kalkes said. “The other thing we found, too, is a lot of veterans don’t understand that they’re eligible, that these are benefits that they’re entitled to.”

He’s always surprised by the number of veterans like himself who don’t know that if they achieve a 100% disability rating, their student loan debt will be forgiven, Clay added. His friend had been done with his military service for over 22 years before realizing he could file for and possibly earn disability compensation, Clay said.

“That has changed his life,” he said, emphasizing that these are all benefits veterans have earned for themselves. “And so that’s a story that you will hear from thousands of veterans that we’ve helped.”

In addition to seeing lives changed, Kalkes said she appreciates being a part of what Veteran Benefits Guide is doing, because she stays “tapped” into the local veteran community. As a sponsor of the Vegas Golden Knights, the company even gets to spotlight veterans during local hockey games.

“Everyone truly does work together and cares about each other,” she said of the veteran community in Las Vegas. “Whether that’s supporting through disability benefits, volunteerism, supporting each other in business ventures through the (Southern Nevada Veterans Chamber of Commerce). It’s just been very cool.”

When Veteran Benefits Guide first got off the ground nearly a decade ago—a time that Clay jokingly referred to as the company’s “garage days”—no one thought it would grow to what it is now, he said. What was then a “pipe dream,” however, is now a company with around 200 employees, and has given tens of thousands of dollars in charitable contributions and more.

“The focus was, let’s just do good, and then success came as a result of that,” he said. “I think that we’re still pushing forward with that, but also seeing how we can learn from experiences both good and bad, internally and externally, to then improve what we’re doing to make sure that we are helping more veterans every year—in fact, almost every day.”

Kalkes talked about how proud she is of the company’s diversity, its culture of belonging and engagement, and the rewarding nature of the work that it does.

“I’m really proud of the work we do internally and externally,” she said. “Of course, helping veterans, it’s a purpose-driven mission that everybody can get behind.”

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This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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