The American Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center in Fayetteville, N.C., June 17-20, provided assistance to 787 veterans and family members – helping with benefits claims, medical appointments, grief counseling and other services.
The Legion set up its crisis center in response to delayed health care at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, which has some of the longest wait times for veterans in the country. A recent VA audit showed that about 8,100 veterans have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments.
Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said many local veterans expressed great concern over the situation in Fayetteville at a June 16 town hall meeting hosted by American Legion Post 202.
"The veterans in Fayetteville were frustrated beyond measure," Jones said. "They just felt put off by VA. And I think those veterans needed something to restore their faith in the system. We weren't really sure how many people would come through the crisis center, but the response was overwhelming."
The Legion's crisis center helped 159 veterans and family members on its first day; 204 the second day; 287 the third day , and 137 the last day.
Besides American Legion staff members, service officers and volunteers from Post 202, the center also included benefits claims specialists from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C., VA medical staff from Fayetteville, Vet Center volunteers and a Mobile Vet Center, and American Red Cross volunteers.
Jones said the veterans' response to the help they got was "amazing. Those veterans were grateful, they were happy. Some of them felt really hopeless when they got to the center. But they had to come to try and find hope somewhere. So many of those veterans were saying, ‘I never thought I'd get this level of service.'"
Cajun Comeau, service officer for the Legion's Department of North Carolina, said many benefits claims had been granted to veterans who came to Post 202 for help, including "dependency claims that in some cases are 14 to 20 months old. That can be up to $130 a month that the veteran has been missing, and they will be back-paid retroactively all the way back to the date of their claim."
As a matter of fact, Jones said, one homeless veteran who did receive back-pay for his benefits returned to the crisis center and made a brief speech to the veterans sitting there. "He said ‘I want you all to know that I came in here, and I didn't have a lot of faith in what was going on. But someone did help me out, and I want you all to know that, in my bank account this morning was my $11,000 retro check. I can now move me and my son out of my vehicle, and I can buy my son a healthy meal.' And he was openly emotional when he said that," Jones said.
Jones said the VBA regional office staff from Winston-Salem "worked really hard. One of them said the experience was completely rewarding, and they were very happy to be a part of it. They were excited to help veterans out."
Douglas Chapman, veterans service center manager for the Winston-Salem VBA office, said he and his staff of seven ratings specialists were able to complete decisions, in one day, in favor of several veterans' benefit claims while they waited at the crisis center. "It's been a wonderful partnership with The American Legion," he said. "We're getting a lot of questions answered and a lot of decisions done while we're here. It's important to us to hear the veterans, sit face-to-face, and answer questions and concerns that they have."
Comeau said, "There's no reason why people should have to wait 24 months for a dependency claim to be granted. It's just a matter of not enough personnel in the Winston-Salem VA regional office. Because they're doing everything they can to put out the fire that is the (claims) backlog."
Several homeless veterans got assistance at the crisis center, including a woman veteran who had been living out of her car. The local VA coordinator for homeless veterans came over to Post 202, got the woman's father to take her in, then started looking for transitional housing.
Post 202's adjutant, Crystalrenee Saunders, said she met a veteran at the crisis center "who was pretty much on the brink of homelessness – literally. He came and got his (claims) appeal paperwork done, they told him exactly what he needs to do, and he left here with a smile on his face. Everybody has left here real happy, so they're doing a really good job."
Comeau said the Legion's crisis center is important because "many veterans have no idea where to go to get professional or expert assistance with claims, appeals and VA health care. So The American Legion is bringing all that information to them, rather than the veteran having to go try to seek it out. We have individuals from the VA health-care system here, signing people up, scheduling appointments on the spot, scheduling VA examinations that may have been, in some cases, cancelled two and three times."
Patricia Harris, who just finished her one-year term as commander for the Department of North Carolina, said she was "not surprised that when The American Legion got involved, that of course these veterans are going to get the help that they need. This is who we are, we advocate and we get results."
The American Legion is heading to El Paso, Texas, to set up another crisis center for veterans, June 24-27. Other crisis centers are planned for next month in Fort Collins, Colo., and Washington, D.C.