In 2007, during one of the war on terror's bleakest points, troops were being medically evacuated from war zones in the Middle East to medical centers in the United States, where an extreme amount of inconvenience, and even negligence, often accompanied their recoveries. At facilities like Walter Reed Army Medical Center, patients with severed limbs, broken necks, brain injuries and various amounts of PTSD collected in large masses, unable to leave, as officials at the facility continually failed to process the paperwork that would allow them a medical discharge. At the overcrowded centers, patients were often forced to look after each other and administer treatment to one another.
It was one big, frustrating bureaucratic nightmare, and it led to resignations of top-ranking officials and a sweeping review of the entire medical system. That review's goal is to ensure that the same kind of negligence or something similar isn't occurring anywhere else.
To help meet that goal, The American Legion will once again help in a very direct manner. Recently, the Legion was given office space at Brooke Army Medical Center and Fort Lewis. There, the Legion will employ service officers who are charged with ensuring that medical discharge requests are processed in a timely and efficient manner. Primarily, these service officers will assist patients with their transition back to civilian life.
"With the backlog that VA has, we need to do everything we can to assist these separating servicemembers," said Dan Dellinger, the Legion's National Security Commission chairman. "With these men and women putting their lives on the line every day, we need to do everything we can do to make their transition as smooth as it can possibly be, Hopefully, Walter Reed's situation was an anomaly."
Jerry Johnson, the Legion's service officer attached to Walter Reed, was at the forefront of securing the positions for the Legion. In February of 2007, Johnson was assigned to Walter Reed to perform similar duties. His position was unprecedented, as no other veterans service organization at the time had an official employee working in a service field at a medical center on a military base.
Johnson's job was spurred by an article in The Washington Post that exposed the negligence and frightening bureaucracies at Walter Reed. Instead of focusing on inadequacies and oversights, The American Legion offered to help and work with the facility to resolve its administrative shortcomings. A memorandum of understanding was drafted between the Legion and Walter Reed, and Johnson's position was created.
As an extension of those efforts, the Legion has formed agreements with Fort Lewis and Brooke Medical Center, allowing Legion service officers to fulfill similar duties there. These service officers are essential, as they are the gatekeepers to a speedy medical discharge. They can help servicemembers begin the paperwork process as early as 180 days prior to their planned separation date.
Additionally, the service officers will help patients and their families navigate VA's often-complicated benefits system. As "transition assistants," they'll provide employment education and resources, help with reacclimation to civilian life, and provide representation on behalf of the servicemember in the benefits-claiming process.
"We realize we are now engaged in two wars, and that has put a strain on military families that we have never seen before," said Sam Gilmore, deputy director of the Legion's National Security/Foreign Relations Division. "We want to be there to provide our assistance in a direct way, and the only way we can do that is if we are on these installations assisting the servicemembers and their families directly."