DUMONT, N.J. — John Opatovsky of Dumont, commander of Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Northern Valley Chapter 32, has helped vets, one on one, for years.
Recently, he was voted the new state commander at a state convention in Atlantic City.
The new post gives Opatovsky a platform to make life better for all 19,000 members of disabled American veteran organizations in New Jersey.
“The main purpose of the DAV is to help vets and their surviving spouses and children get benefits from the VA,” Opatovsky said. “That why we’re in existence.”
That’s also why, for the past six years, Opatovsky, 58, has been helping disabled vets fill out their disability paperwork for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He does that in the Bergenfield headquarters of Chapter 32.
Until recently, he also did it as a volunteer service officer at the East Orange Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System.
Firsthand, Opatovsky knows what a war disability is. He served in the U.S. Navy for 19 years, starting in 1976, but spent the last eight in physical therapy.
“I got blown up in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983. I didn’t walk for two years,” Opatovsky said. “They said I’d never walk and be functional. Don’t tell me I can’t do something because I’m just going to do it to prove you wrong.
“So here I am,” he added, “kickin’ ass and takin’ names.”
On July 7, Opatovsky is meeting for the first time with Gov. Christie’s aide for veterans. He's ready with an agenda he has created from meeting thousands of vets.
He connects with Vietnam vets at motorcycle events.
He distributes canteen booklets, which are as good as cash, to vets in VA facilities.
He talks vets through crises.
So he knows what’s on their minds.
During his one-year term, Opatovsky wants to push the creation of more veterans courts, which now exist, he said, in six South Jersey counties and other states, including California and Florida.
“You’ll be seen by a veteran judge. The prosecutor will be a veteran, as will everybody in the courtroom,” he explained. “A veteran is more in tune with a veteran.”
Opatovsky also wants vets to have property tax discounts commensurate with their percentage of disability. So a 20 percent disabled veteran would get a 20 percent discount.
“Right now if you’re 100 percent disabled, you pay no property tax,” he explained. But there are no breaks for those who are less disabled.
He also will fight to protect disability benefits, which, he said, often are in jeopardy, and to cut veteran homelessness in New Jersey even more.
The simplest measure on his agenda is to have the state issue every honorably discharged veteran a license plate with the word “VETERAN” on it. That will help when a police officer stops a veteran driver on the road.
Odds are, Opatovsky said, that a veteran has some form of post-traumatic stress.
He does. That’s part of the reason he volunteers so much time to Disabled American Veterans.
“Helping others,” he said, “helps me with my personal PTSD.”