Ronnie Jackson had run out of hope numerous times since the mid-1970s when he first started trying to receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jackson, an Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam War, said he had tried to get help at multiple VA hospitals for his injuries ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to a bum ankle.
Jackson said he moved around, hoping that a new VA hospital would be better in a new community. He did not find that to be the case.
But last week he heard about The American Legion's Veterans Command Crisis Center (VCCC) in St. Louis, where Jackson has lived for the past three years. The Legion hosted week-long VCCCs in St. Louis and Fort Collins, Colo., last week, fully staffed with VA health-care and benefits representatives, benefits claims experts, counselors and others to help veterans get the assistance they require.
"As I was watching the news last night, I saw it (the Legion's VCCC) and thought that's where I need to get my answers," he said. "And today I am so happy. I got my answers, got what I needed to know and where to start to make that first step again. I am so happy that (The American Legion) is here to sponsor this. Otherwise, I would still be in confusion and not knowing where to go to start."
During the VCCCs, there were 178 veterans helped in St. Louis and 119 in Fort Collins, Colo. The numbers are fewer than those helped at previous crisis centers in Phoenix, Fayetteville, N.C., and El Paso, Texas. But Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, says what's more important is the individuals who receive the assistance.
Jones cites as an example a veteran who attended the St. Louis VCCC after working on his claim since 1969. "He just didn't know where to go," she said. "And he came in today and when he left, he said, ‘If nothing else happens, I feel happy that The American Legion was here and that VA sat and talked to me today.' He felt like someone cared, listened and someone would help him."
Stories such as that one are a common thread through the first five VCCCs, and that's how their success will be measured, Jones said.
"We cannot base our successes on how many people show up," Jones said. "There were people that were there last night who had a great deal of need. There were people who had gone to their VA for help and were not helped.
"We have a great impact on veterans. Every veteran's need is different. Some of them are here because they want specific things, others just want to be heard. And the fact that we're here makes all the difference in the world."
It was the same at American Legion Post 4 in Fort Collins where veterans in the rural area came away feeling they were actually heard by Legion and VA reps. Veterans also were able to get enrolled, file claims and learn about some VA services they were possibly eligible for but hadn't known they existed.
Some veterans were desperate. David Hunter, a Navy veteran, had been homeless for two years. He used his last $40 on a cab ride to the center and then slept outside the night before he came into the center. Legion and VA reps were able to get Hunter into the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.
"For me, I'm 68 years old, and I don't know how much longer I'll physically be able to be (homeless)," Hunter said. "If I didn't get indoors, I don't know if I could have made it another winter out there."
James Murphy, a supervisor for Ambulatory Care and Processing at the Cheyenne (Wy.) VA Medical Center, was at the center all week. On Thursday, an OEF-OIF veteran came to the center seeking help. He had enrolled in VA and talked to VA staff previously but hadn't gotten any answers.
Murphy was able to get the veteran, who had been injured by an IED while serving, scheduled for a traumatic brain injury evaluation and then connected him with Veterans Benefits Administration staff to look at possibly getting him service connected for up to eight conditions.
"He told me that he'd gotten more information in 20 minutes here than he'd ever gotten before talking with VA," Murphy said. "That one guy made our whole week. We're going to get him the care and the disability rating he deserves."
Department of Colorado Service Officer Dean Casey got power-of-attorney on nearly 40 VA claims during the week. Some were seeking physical health care, while others needed mental health help.
"I can see four veterans that we were instrumental in getting the help they needed immediately from the (VA) Vet Center," Casey said. "There's a lot of them who were having issues and we got them over to the (VA reps) and got them taken care of. You could see the relief in them when they got that help."
One of those Casey worked with, Air Force veteran Ryan Parr, said he developed a skin condition and other symptoms after a series of vaccination shots while serving in the Air Force from 1998-2003. Parr said he's been misdiagnosed and hasn't felt "anyone cared." But coming to the VCCC was a very positive experience.
"Dean was to the point," Parr said. "He clearly has done this before, and that's all you want. I just wanted to feel justified. At the end of the day, I feel 100 percent OK coming here and asking for help."
The Fort Collins effort meant even more to Ralph Bozella, chairman of both the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission and System Worth Saving Task Force. Bozella is a member of Post 32 in Longmont, Colo., and has served in leadership positions at every level within the department.
Bozella said his department has plans to conduct similar centers on its own.
"We know we're helping those closest to home," Bozella said. "And what I'm really happy about is department leadership being here and seeing this model work. They're feeling the same excitement that I am because they know one thing: this model helps veterans, and it helps them now. I believe this is the greatest program The American Legion has yet come up with to help veterans in the most timely manner.
"The success we've seen in Phoenix, Fayetteville, El Paso and what we're seeing right here in this smaller community – it works."