Telling a crowd of Legionnaires that "I'm not going anywhere without you," VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said The American Legion and other veterans service organizations "are critical to our future and to our ability to serve our veterans, their families and their survivors."
Speaking in Minneapolis during a Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission meeting, the retired Air Force brigadier general said the VA had about one million disability claims to process, including nearly 429,000 that have been backlogged for more than 125 days.
"We have got to chop down that forest (of paperwork)," Hickey said. "Because when we kill those paper files, we come in electronically, we can start to handle things better."
Hickey noted that 625,000 of current VA disability claims are from veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan - 43 percent of them from National Guard or reserve units, a figure that demonstrates their importance to the war effort "because we have not had that since World War II.
"That is our new, next 25-year-generation population," Hickey said. "That is your new, next-25-year enrollment, employment, engagement - part of your membership population."
Specifically addressing Legion service officers in the audience, Hickey said that many veterans who served in the National Guard or Reserves during the 1990s are having difficulty filing for VA benefits because they were not issued DD214 forms - the essential document for proving one's military service.
"How do we go back and find a way to establish the service connection (for a claim)?" Hickey questioned. VA is talking to the Department of Defense about the lack of DD214's and trying to find a quick fix. "We're going after that issue really hard."
Urging Legionnaires to "keep putting the word out" to veterans on applying for Agent Orange- related disability benefits, Hickey said, "Let me just tell you what you have helped us do in the last two years. You have allowed us to put two billion dollars in the hands of 85,000 Vietnam-era veterans. That is really significant."
Hickey told the commission members that she has heard from many women veterans who are concerned about post-traumatic stress caused by military sexual trauma. "We don't believe it's being handled right, we don't believe it's being assessed and adjudicated right. I'm not exactly happy with where we are (on this issue)."
Shifting her focus to VA education benefits, Hickey said the VA has provided $12 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to a half-million veterans and family members. "And that is something you all helped us do, and I want to thank you for that." She asked the Legion to help veterans understand that their education benefits also extend to non-degree programs.
Hickey said that returning veterans needed a better transition to civilian life than what is currently being provided by the Transition Assistance Program (TAP).
"Our veterans today...do not know how to reach us, how to get us, what their benefits are. In general, you all have done a better job telling them a lot of that information than we have," Hickey said. "They do not have a common TAP experience; it's not mandatory, it depends on where you got it and took it in the country.
"So what we're doing, we are looking at examining that entire Transition Assistance Program foundation. It took us nine weeks to bring them into the military, to give them that culture, to bring that family in and teach them about this culture. Why do we not find the same energy to take them out effectively?"
Hickey said her "big foot-stomper" is VA's new eBenefits. "And this is where I need your help because I need you all to be my e-Benefits folks. What I need to ask you to do is to help us get your veterans online at eBenefits."
She said that based on survey results, about 73 percent of veterans - and about 78 percent of National Guard or reserve members - want to meet with the VA online. "Don't send us papers anymore. Meet us online, let us submit things online."
eBenefits is a "one-stop shop" for veterans, servicemembers, military families and caregivers to learn about and apply for VA benefits, using self-service online tools. Hickey called upon the Legion to help VA promote this new online service.