The message has been quite clear this week at The American Legion's Department Service Officer School: the organization's service officer make a real difference in the lives of veterans and their families.
And, yes, the work can be quite demanding.
Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion in Washington, told the group of about 100 service officers at the Renaissance Hotel that "It's one thing for our national staff to go to the White House and lobby for veterans benefits. But it's a very different thing that you do at the grassroots level, every day in the towns and cities where you live."
Gaytan thanked the Legionnaires for their service, which "gives us credibility here in Washington. You support the pillars of this great organization, and that's why we're the world's biggest and best veterans' service organization." He said it was important for the Legion and its service officers "to evolve with the needs of America's veterans, and that's what we're doing."
Barry Searle, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, highlighted some important topics being covered at the school. "One of my priorities is to help women veterans, and also to help with the VA claims process - to make life easier and simpler for veterans," Searle said.
Amplifying on Gaytan's theme, DSO school director Steve Smithson reminded the participants that the school has changed a lot over the years, based mainly on feedback from the service officers. "Keep that in mind as you go through your training - we're always striving to make it better," he said.
Steve Robertson, the Legion's legislative division director, gave the school a rundown of VA funding status, noting that President Obama's $125 billion budget request for fiscal 2011 met or exceeded nearly every recommendation by The American Legion. He told the group that the president's three major areas of concerns were to get greater access for veterans to benefits and services, reduce the VA disability claims backlog, and to alleviate the problems of homelessness among veterans.
"It's going to take a culture change at VA and also some technology changes," Robertson said, to deal effectively with the claims backlog. He said a new record was set last year for the number of disability claims filed with VA - which sounds like progress is being made. However, even more new claims were received than were adjudicated. VA anticipates even more new claims may be filed because of recent VA decisions concerning illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure.
On the homeless veterans issue, Robertson said a lot of money is being invested to defeat the problem, and the federal focus is to provide more housing. "But we keep reminding them that veterans need job training programs that work. The way you end homelessness among veterans is to provide them with meaningful employment."
The Legion is pushing to expand the GI Bill to include more vocational opportunities, Robertson said, and also supports the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record initiative, which will make servicemembers' records completely available to both VA and DoD from the day they take the oath of enlistment until laid to rest in a veterans' or military cemetery.
Updates were also given on mental health care for veterans, third-party billing of medical expenses, health care for women veterans, VA rural health care, and concurrent receipt (military retirement pay is offset, dollar for dollar, against any disability compensation being received by the veteran).
"We've been able to have some changes made to that policy, but many veterans still have that offset," Robertson said. "President Obama wants to eliminate concurrent receipt offsets completely, and his budget request includes funding that would completely repeal concurrent receipt by 2015."
Encouraging DSOs to establish relationships with their local congressional offices, Robertson said, "The more you can educate folks in your local congressional district offices, the stronger the message will be to that legislator. Invite staffers to post meetings. Let them hear your concerns about veterans. If they're veterans, get them to join those posts. Invite them to judge Legion events, such as the oratorical contests.
"Grassroots is the secret to success, and if you can speak with one voice to your congressional representatives, it really helps."
Military DES representation
The next presentation focused on the U.S. Army's Disability Evaluation System (DES), given by Jerry Johnson, the Legion's representative at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He explained the components of DES and how they function: the Physical Disability Agency, Medical Evaluation Board and Physical Evaluation Board.
Johnson told the group that a DES pilot program was initiated in November 2007, which makes VA responsible for disability ratings instead of DoD. "The results of the VA exams are sent to the Physical Evaluation Board, then to the servicemembers," Johnson said. "Then they have five days to concur or appeal." He said a servicemember can appeal only one time while on active duty, and he or she must have new medical evidence to support their appeal.
"Once servicemembers are discharged, they can appeal their disability evaluations again, and they can be represented by American Legion service officers," he said.
Johnson referred to the findings of report written by Gen. Tommy Franks about DES, saying the general urged a complete updating of a system that hasn't been fully overhauled in about 60 years. "The system isn't very woman-friendly, and there needs to be more focus on the rehabilitation and transition of our troops," Johnson said.
The rest of the day was filled with other presentations. Verna Jones, head of the Legion's appeals unit at the Board of Veterans Appeals, explained the complexities of preparing and filing disability claims appeal with VA. She emphasized that DSOs need to make sure they have power-of-attorney from veterans they represent. "Without power-of-attorney, The American Legion can do nothing," Jones said. "And we really don't like to take power-of-attorney after an appeal has already gone to the board."
Two representatives from the Veterans Health Administration, Kristen Cunningham and Allisha Robinson, discusses service-connected disability ratings and VA assistance programs for veterans who are struggling financially and need help with their copayment debts.
Last but not least, Ron Abrams of the National Veterans Legal Services Program provided advocacy training to the DSOs. He said The American Legion was "on top of" the VA regulations concerning post-traumatic stress disorder, and that the organization needs to take note of a new problem with VA disability claims hearings that is becoming nationwide.
Abrams said that VA sometimes holds hearings on disability claims, then sends those transcripts to another location, where the decision is made by another individual.
"Does it seem fair that someone else is making that final decision, who was not involved in the actual hearing?" Abrams asked his audience. "We're also finding that some VA hearing officers aren't all that interested in listening to additional testimony. We want to work with The American Legion to change that."
Abrams said that when his organization represents veterans whose cases have been handled by The American Legion, they win about 95 percent of them in court.
Click here  to see an overview on DSO school.