Andy Winterbottom was a proud U. S. Marine before he proudly wore the title of a Houston police officer.
Winterbottom has always felt the call to help, whether it’s his country as a Marine or Houstonians and his fellow officers as a detective in Burglary and Theft. To be specific, he has a certain way of helping his Blue Family members, especially if they are service veterans.
Hill of Paperwork
His above and beyond the call of duty attitude prompted HPOU to present Winterbottom with the first-ever Houston Police Officers Union Meritorious Community Service Award. The Union took this action at the Dec. 6 gengeral membership meeting amid a roomful of smiling faces and appreciative attitudes.
Winterbottom has used his personal experiences to gain his well-deserved veteran’s benefits to educate veterans who have become HPD officers – and there is an untold number – how they can access these entitlements from the Veterans Administration, not the least of which is medical benefits.
You might say this ex-Marine knows how to conquer the hill of paperwork and plant the flag of benefits. Semper Fi!
The award is for those who have made major contributions, either long-term or a single significant noteworthy achievement resulting in a positive impact for the members of the Houston Police Officers Union and the community at large.
Let’s start this great story from the beginning, using Winterbottom’s words.
He was orphaned from the Vietnam War, one of 3,000 youngsters brought to the United States and other countries through Operation Babylift at the end of the war in 1975. He has no record of his parentage or even a birth certificate. “Nobody knows my real date of birth,” he told the Badge & Gun. “I was adopted and grew up in Lindenhurst, New York. My mother was a teacher, a single parent.”
To get to the point – the start of adulthood – Winterbottom joined the Marines, serving as a combat engineer at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before his deployment to Somalia and the Gulf War with the 1st Marines. He saw plenty of combat duty and wound up serving nine years in the Corps.
He and his best friend wanted to join the private sector by going into business together. Research showed them what many other veterans have aptly determined: that Houston provides “cheaper and better opportunities.” They opened A. J.’s Inspections and Repairs, an automotive repair service. “My buddy was Joe Villarreal. We sold it a year before I became a cop. He now owns a cross fit gym on 290.”
The next line on the resume: graduate of the 2006 Academy Class No. 185. He went to patrol as a rookie and to the jail. Following the footsteps of countless others, he returned to Central Patrol, where, yes, he bonded with many veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – all of them in Houston Blue.
One of the lieutenants from the streets, Johnny Gonzalez, and a long-time workmate, Detective Christina Reyna, hooked Winterbottom into Burglary and Theft, where he now serves as a detective. The unit is also where Reyna and Sgt. Troy Triplett made sure Winterbottom was nominated for the special Union award.
In case you need to be reminded, Marines stick together in the thick of battle and the sometimes “thin” of the aftermath.
Another Marine buddy paid Winterbottom a visit and shared with him his success in helping colleagues access veteran’s benefits they didn’t realize they were entitled to. Winterbottom fit that description. He had been out of the Corps for 13 years, unaware that his combat record specified benefits. His friend, Wilson, “made me get my VA ID card and we had one more place to go – to the hood, 9418 Jensen Drive.”
The Harris County Veterans Service Office opened its doors to Winterbottom and, subsequently more than 30 other HPD officers who are service veterans entitled to benefits. It was there Winterbottom met a gentleman who would change his life for the better. His name: David Cantu, himself a Marine Corps veteran.
Heretofore, Winterbottom accepted his fate as a combat volunteer, taking the wear and tear on his body as just part of the volunteer job. “I’m not hurt,” he said. “It’s what you get for volunteering.”
You Body Changes
Cantu convinced him otherwise. Marine participants in the same war zone experienced painful knee strains that often result in the need for surgery, he said. Then he told Winterbottom his personnel and medical records from the Marine record depository in Kansas City, Missouri, would be the first major step toward flagging his entitlements. Cantu initiated the process, which often takes a year or longer.
“You are willing to serve,” Winterbottom said in reflection. “But you didn’t realize this is what’s going to happen when you do. You’re not the same person going in and you are coming out.”
His own personal pension-access process inspired Winterbottom to use his learning experience to help his fellow officers in the same situation. He was modest but appreciative about the merit award but attributes his success to Cantu, “who should really receive an award for what he does for us.”
Although designated to handle pension claims for ex-Marines, because of his experiences with Winterbottom will help any HPD officer no matter what their branch of service. “He doesn’t care if it’s Army or Navy,” Winterbottom reported, saying he and Cantu are now helping Reyna’s brother in the benefits process.
“Once I got my final pension rating, holy crap!” Winterbottom remembered. “It was life-changing money after all the years of going without because of all the injuries I sustained.”
Like the job of a Marine or an HPD officer, the going often gets tough. It entails overcoming the VA bureaucracy, securing copes of your records and documentation. “So many people just give up because it’s so overwhelming,” Winterbottom said. “Dave teaches how to access medical and service records from the archives. He walks ‘em through.
“The way he breaks it down, someone like me with old stuff (1990s records) takes a lot longer. But if you’re just getting out, it’s easier.”
Patience remains a necessary attribute. It took Winterbottom, who got out of the service in 1997, until 2011 to reach a final settlement.
He stressed that the sooner you get to Cantu the better. Because of recent changes in policy, benefits are retroactive to the date of Cantu’s involvement in the process. Winterbottom also pointed out another important point to his fellow HPD veterans: medical benefits for certain medical conditions “are not going to jeopardize your career with HPD.”
“What I noticed is that a lot of a new rookies coming out are veterans,” the B&T detective said. “A lot are struggling. In HPD when you start out you don’t make much money, you really don’t. We’ve helped 20 or 30 officers. Dave says 20 have gotten pension settlements. Also, Texas really does take care of its veterans.”
If your pension is listed at 50 percent the state provides:
- A reduction in property taxes.
- Free EZ tags
- Free parking in the city of Houston, including at the airport.
- Free hunting and fishing licenses
“These little perks really help out,” he said. “And your car registration is like $3. Coming from New York, I can tell you that they don’t do that for us up there.
“And free medical for the rest of my life – you can’t beat that.”
Ready to Help
Winterbottom and Cantu are well-versed on the details from PTSD to the ever-complicated and potentially disastrous appeals process.
The Marine-turned-detective knows no hill too high to take and has the flag ready to help plant into the right benefit package for his fellow HPD officers/veterans.
He wants you to call him if you need help with the hill and the flag.
“I’d love to know who the combat veterans are,” he said about HPD. “They are the ones who need help. We will help ‘em get the help they need first. They’ll have questions about being qualified (for benefits). That’s what I’m there for and what Dave is there for.”