Ralph DeLoma has been out of the military for more than 70 years, but the 96-year-old Bradenton resident never knew he was eligible for a pension.
That is until he met Bernie Cheeseman, a Manatee County veteran services officer. Now DeLoma, a World War II combat veteran who turns 97 next month, is in line to receive something he has been eligible for for years.
“Something terrific, really,” DeLoma said sitting in Cheeseman’s office in the county administration building earlier this month. “I never inquired for it. I didn’t think I was eligible for it. The only one that helped me is Bernie. He’s a terrific man.”
That’s why this job makes such a big difference to people’s lives. You know that you are helping someone get to a better place in their life.
Bernie Cheeseman, Manatee County Employee of the Year
Cheeseman’s work with Manatee County veterans and their families recently earned him the title of Manatee County government 2016 Employee of the Year. The balloons — “You’re No. 1,” “Congrats” and three blue and white stars — still sway in his office from when he was told he had been named Employee of the Year.
“Without a doubt, I’ve had many jobs and career type things happen in my life but this is the best position because on a daily basis people come into my office and I can do things to help improve their lives,” the 66-year-old said. “Hardly a week goes by where we don’t get a thank you note or a telephone call telling us that what we’ve done has really improved the life situation for these people.”
As a veteran himself — serving from 1986 to 2010 — Cheeseman said it helps when working with Manatee County’s veterans.
“It is far easier for you to understand because you can relate,” he said. “They are more open to talking with someone with a similar background. There is a commonality.”
For Cheeseman, who was Employee of the Month in November, his favorite aspect of his job is changing people’s lives.
“I got a fantastic job because it can truly change people’s circumstances,” he said. “That’s why this job makes such a big difference to people’s lives. You know that you are helping someone get to a better place in their life.”
Manatee County Veteran Services Officer Lee Washington said Cheeseman is a blessing.
“To have Bernie as a counselor in my division, it is truly a blessing to me,” Washington said. “He keeps a summary of his appointments for the day and outlines with each customer the expectations for the local, state and federal benefits they may have earned. He is ever engaging the public and shares his knowledge with the public all the benefits offered through Manatee County Veterans Services Division.”
After more than three years with the county, Cheeseman will retire in March, going out at the “top of his game.”
“It feels good,” he said. “It’s been a great year for me and a great way to end my career.”
But while he will no longer be helping the county’s approximately 40,000 veterans, Cheeseman still plans to give back.
“I think when you start serving your community and your nation the desire to do that continues over after you leave the military so that’s what I’ve done,” he said. “Overall, veterans are community service minded and even when I leave this job I still intend to do things to help people. I’m still going to be helping people out but not in the same way.”
The interactions with the veterans on a daily basis is what Cheeseman says he’ll miss most.
“The one-on-one interaction with the people as we’re helping them and the joy of receiving that phone call from them or the thank you note saying what we worked to do together has been accomplished and now they are getting a benefit from the VA that’s truly life changing for them,” he said.