Seneca County Veteran of the Year to be honored at award ceremony

PHOTO SUBMITTED James “Mac” McAuliffe at work at his desk at the Seneca County Veterans Service Commission before his retirement last year.

When he was a kid, James “Mac” McAuliffe would stand with his hands on the fence and watch with fascination as planes took off from the runway at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, on the outskirts of his hometown of Goldsboro, North Carolina.

At 14 he started working, first in a grocery store, then a dairy bar, mowing grass and for a little while on a tobacco farm. In 1970, a 17-year-old senior in high school, he joined the Air Force, knowing his parents wouldn’t be able to afford to send him to college.

He was soon stationed in the Philippines as a radio operator. One night, as he listened for messages over the airwaves, his supervisor came up behind him and told McAuliffe he was going to teach him how to do his job, how to be a supervisor.

At first, McAuliffe resisted, saying he didn’t plan on staying in the military.

“Son, you’re going to be a lifer,” his supervisor told him.

McAuliffe would go on to retire as a master sergeant in the United States Air Force 20 years later.

“In the beginning, I thought I’d do four years and get out and go to college, figure something else out,” McAuliffe said. “But then one day I woke up and I’d put 15 years in.”

And even after 20 years in the Air Force, McAuliffe’s service was only beginning.

In his post-military career, McAuliffe went on to become executive director of the Seneca County Veterans Service Office, president of the Ohio State Association of County Veterans Service Officers and an instructor with the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers.

In honor of his long career, the Seneca County Veterans Service Commission will name McAuliffe the 2019 Seneca County Veteran of the Year at a ceremony at Bettsville American Legion Post 733, 323 State St., today at 5:30 p.m.

“Through Mac’s 27 years of continued service and training of thousands of Veterans Service Officers, he has provided benefits to hundreds of thousands of men and women who served,” a statement from the Seneca County Veterans Service Commission reads. “Mac’s outreach extended well past his duties in Seneca County and his dedication to veterans and this country. Through these efforts he is well deserving of the 2019 Seneca County Veteran of the Year Award.”

But when he first exited the Air Force, after 20 years, one month and 16 hours of service (not that he was counting, he insisted with a wink), McAuliffe didn’t even know County Veterans Service Offices existed.

It was through a job offer he received from the County Veterans Service Office that he learned about the office’s efforts in helping veterans receive their government benefits and adjust to civilian life.

“I interviewed in the summer of 1991 and started in September,” McAuliffe said. “I liked it because you got to help people, help them get the benefits they earned, and you can continue to help their families when they’re gone.”

McAuliffe helped Seneca County’s veterans with the step-by-step procedures for filing claims in addition to the office’s many other initiatives, which have included short-term financial assistance programs, transportation back and forth to VA clinics and even burial assistance programs for the families of deceased veterans.

“You get to know these people and you begin to care about them,” he said.

“You don’t call them clients,” he said. “We always called them ‘our veterans’,” he said.

“You’d get close and they’d eventually pass away, and that was always the one downside to the job,” he said. “But at least you could continue to help take care of their families after they passed.”

McAuliffe helped many Seneca County veterans achieve a long-term pension through the VA, a process that could sometimes take years to formalize. He worked with several veterans whose claims took five to six years to clear, and the longest he spent working on a veteran’s claim was 14 years.

“Sometimes we had an answer on a claim in two months, but at the end of the 1990s it could take up to two years to get a claim processed,” he said.

“But you just had to stick with it, and more importantly you had to convince the claimant to stick with it, too,” he said. “Because for some people, that money was the difference between them making it financially or not.”

In addition to his 27 years at the Seneca County Veterans Service Office, McAuliffe served on the Education Committee of the Ohio State Association of County Veterans Service Officers for more than a decade. During this time he conducted week-long training sessions for county veterans service officers around the state and also helped form a cabinet-level position in the state government that operates on the behalf of Ohio’s veterans.

“Our state association worked with the state legislature,” he said. “Ohio already took care of its veterans better than any other state I’ve encountered, but this was a direct way for us to represent veterans’ needs at the level of state government, too,” he said.

While an instructor for the OSACVSO, he was invited in 2003 to teach accreditation courses to veterans service officers across the country as a contract instructor with the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers. McAuliffe attended annual national conferences for the association and traveled around the country teaching formal classes to veterans service officers in training.

“The training process was in place so that any veteran could come to any office and the person there would know how to process their claim, whether it was a pension, a medical claim or other benefits,” he said.

“It was fun, enjoyable work,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of people we trained, us officers,” he said.

He related a memorable story about training veterans service officers in New Mexico.

“We were sent to train officers from multiple Native American tribes that hadn’t been in the same room together in hundreds of years,” he said.

“All of those tribal service officers were volunteers, and many of them Vietnam vets,” he said. “Most of what they did for their veterans they had to pay for out of their own pockets, whether it was buying office supplies, traveling to see people or just maintaining an office in general.

“They hadn’t had formal training before, and we found out later that one of the officers was sleeping in the back of his car in a parking lot,” he said. “We’ve talked about this man in training sessions with other officers later, as an example of the kind of dedicated person you want to do this job.”

After their week-long course, all of the officers passed their accreditation tests and there was a bit of a party for McAuliffe and his fellow teachers before they left for home.

“They gave us gifts and a Native American name before we left,” he said. “I got a coffee cup, probably because I was never seen by anyone without a coffee cup in my hand, and my name was ‘Joker.'”

For anyone who has spoken with McAuliffe, this name will reveal itself to be perfectly appropriate.

McAuliffe said that all of his training efforts, at the state and national level, involved volunteered time.

“It was on top of my primary job, which was taking care of people in Seneca County,” he said. “That’s where we put the effort, and I like to think we did pretty well.”

McAuliffe originally moved to Seneca County after retiring from the Air Force for family reasons, but he said he is happy that he decided to stay.

“I could’ve left, but it became my home,” he said. “After 20 years of moving around all my life I decided I didn’t want to do it again, and I liked working in the county office.”

“At this point, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else in my life.”

Receiving the 2019 Veteran of the Year Award afforded McAuliffe a chance to look back on his career, and when speaking about the whole of it, he only expressed gratitude for his colleagues and the fellow officers he met along the path.

“We used to tell people in training they had the best job in the world, and it’s true,” he said. “Because you got to take care of veterans and their families, and you got paid to do it (not enough, of course, but you did get paid),” he said, chuckling.

“We always got along well in the office, and we had a good time but the work always got done,” he said.

“And there was not one day in 27 years when I didn’t want to go to work.”