An Aug. 12 collaboration between The American Legion and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) allowed American Legion members to speak one on one with Dr. Paul R. Lawrence, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Under Secretary for Benefits.
Via a tele-townhall, Legionnaires were given the chance to ask questions directly to Lawrence, while American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Ralph Bozella co-hosted the event. Over the course of an hour, Lawrence fielded questions from Legionnaires from across the country, with the topics ranging from Agent Orange to legislation that could provide puppies to servicemembers for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, to a plea from one veteran who didn’t know where else to turn as his disability claim languished following years of appeals.
An Iraq War veteran called in about a claim that he filed in 2009 that was denied more than seven times before he was granted a full and permanent disability status from VA. Each time it was denied, he said, VA closed out the claim to avoid issuing back pay. “It’s very frustrating,” the veteran said, his voice full of emotion. “Now I have to wait another two or three years before I can go to court and hopefully have them hear my side of it.”
“As soon as you hang up, I’m going to have somebody call you to work with you on this,” Lawrence told the veteran. “I want to let you know you’re not alone … and the first thing we’re going to do is make sure you’re okay.
“We have a crisis hotline for folks who reach a point where they are in crisis,” added Lawrence, urging those who may be struggling to call the hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255. The line is manned 24 hours a day, and callers are connected within seconds.
“We want our veterans to know that VA is truly changing,” Lawrence said. “We are far from perfect, but we are better today than we were just a few years ago. We continue to work to be more accessible, more accountable and more agile so we can be more responsive to the challenges our veterans face.”
“I appreciate the undersecretary’s accessibility and his work to make VBA more transparent and easier to understand,” Bozella said. “To me, he’s brought a whole new level of transparency to veterans’ benefits.”
Another question came from a Legionnaire asking about the PAWS Act. The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act is a Legion-backed bill that would allow VA to connect service dogs with veterans dealing with post-deployment mental health needs by awarding grants to nonprofit organizations that would provide veterans with puppies to become therapeutic service dogs, as well as cover the cost of training the puppies. The PAWS Act passed favorably through the House of Representatives in February and now rests with the Senate.
“If they (Congress) pass this, then we will administer it to the best of our ability,” Lawrence said. “That being said, I think you’ve seen (VA Secretary Robert Wilkie) talk about the importance of therapy and support for our veterans in ways we never imagined.”
American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford also called in to the tele-townhall to thank Lawrence and Bozella for taking the time to host the event. “We need to realize the value of this conversation, and I really think it shows a commitment from VA to the veterans of this country,” he said.
“We really appreciate the partnership with The American Legion and Chairman Bozella in helping us arrange this,” Lawrence told Oxford.
“These types of town halls are the events that can and do make a difference in the lives of veterans,” said Bozella, who will be participating in a virtual press event regarding Agent Orange on August 20 with U.S. Rep. Josh Harder.