More than 500 veterans, family members and community members attended the third Annual Veteran’s University, hosted by Democratic Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz.

The event was designed to empower veterans, their families, and all attendees to advocate for themselves and their fellow veterans and ensure they receive the benefits they have earned.

Veterans attending the 2018 Veterans University at Agua Caliente Resort in Rancho Mirage.

Veterans attending the 2018 Veterans University at Agua Caliente Resort in Rancho Mirage.

Attendees participated in workshops on crucial topics that included mental health, VA benefits, exposure to burn pits, home ownership and more. More than a dozen organizations like Loma Linda VA Medical Center, Burn Pits 360, Riverside National Cemetery and others offered assistance and information at the event.

“The process for veterans to get their benefits is cumbersome and full of bureaucratic red tape. We didn’t want to wait for Congress to get its act together, so we worked as a community and created Veteran’s University to fill the gap,” Ruiz said in a prepared statement. “Today is about recognizing the sacrifices our veterans and their families have made to protect our nation and the freedoms we enjoy by ensuring they have access to the benefits they have earned. It is my hope that today, by providing our community with information, training, and resources, we can work together to best serve our veterans and improve their lives.”

Ruiz created Veteran’s University in response to concerns that local veterans raised through a series of listening sessions and veterans’ community forums.

Congressman Ruiz and Seymour "Sy" Kaplan recipient of the first-ever 36th Congressional District Veterans Service Award, in honor of Chief Master Sergeant Shirley Powell.

Congressman Ruiz and Seymour “Sy” Kaplan recipient of the first-ever 36th Congressional District Veterans Service Award, in honor of Chief Master Sergeant Shirley Powell.

This year’s Veteran’s University featured Ruiz presenting the first-ever 36th Congressional District Veterans Service Award, created in honor of Shirley Powell, a local Air Force veteran who passed away last March. Seymour “Sy” Kaplan received the award this year for his decades of service helping homeless veterans in our community.

“I am so honored to present Sy Kaplan with the first-ever 36th Congressional District Veterans Service Award, in honor of Chief Master Sergeant Shirley Powell, for his outstanding service to our nation and our community,” Ruiz said in a prepared statement. “Throughout the years, Sy has helped many homeless veterans find shelter and jobs, and was instrumental in getting the Palm Desert VA clinic opened here in the Coachella Valley. Sy exemplifies Shirley’s selfless pursuit of excellence fighting for our local veterans.”

“When Congressman Ruiz named me as the recipient of the first ever Veteran’s Service Award in honor of Shirley Powell, I was surprised, humbled and truly honored. Shirley was a personal friend of mine, and an outstanding advocate for her fellow veterans,” said Sy Kaplan, a 94 year old Army veteran. “I have a deep affection for Dr. Ruiz, not only because he’s shown through action that he truly cares and respects veterans, but also because he once saved my wife’s life as a doctor. I want to thank him for his dedication to the veteran community, and commend his work ethic on behalf of his constituents”

Congressman Raul Ruiz, Joel Pinedo, Gary Kidd, Dennis Nicklaus, David Crouse.

Congressman Raul Ruiz, Joel Pinedo, Gary Kidd, Dennis Nicklaus, David Crouse.

Ruiz also recognized the acts of heroism of four local veterans by presenting them with the medals they earned while serving our nation. The four veterans were: Gary Kidd, Dennis Nicklaus, David Crouse, and Joe Pinedo. Joe Pinedo was Congressman Ruiz’s childhood barber and actually gave him his very first haircut.