A point of emphasis for Veterans Employment and Education Commission Chairman Vincent Troiola was to encourage commission members to take what they learned at Saturday’s meeting back to their departments and posts.
That was reflected in the presentations of several speakers Saturday afternoon during the commission meeting at the 101st American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis.
Jason Latona, program manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) Program, and Michael Anthony DeLaRosa, director of Veterans Build at Habitat for Humanity International, told the commission that there are a number of ways the Legion can help them.
“There are a lot of grants in the VA, there is a lot of money available to veterans who are eligible for them, and what we need your help with is making sure that the veterans who have severe service-connected disabilities (get that information),” Latona said.
“We know that housing is important … (but) there are things that we can’t be experts in because we focus primarily on affordable housing, so we’re hoping with the support of The American Legion that we can help our vets who are coming to us to get connected with the resources they might benefit from,” DeLaRosa said.
That ability to help programs like Habitat for Humanity get veteran clients receive the resources they need is a plus for working with the Legion.
“We can stand together and have a unified voice around affordable housing, I think we start to move the ground a little bit. … The challenge that we have, though, is the more we open this door, the more our veterans are going to need. We want to be able to get them to the right resources,” DeLaRosa said.
“We have tools in our toolbox to help expedite grants for veterans who have ALS, service-connected cancer, other terminal illnesses, with the intention that we can get them eligible for veterans’ mortgage life insurance as quickly as possible. … But really what we need is connecting those veterans as quickly as possible, and that’s where I think The American Legion comes in,” Latona said.
“The fact that you can reach out in the local communities is a big deal for us because we only learn of veterans when they’ve been deemed eligible by compensation services; you live and breathe with these veterans in the local community and know what their needs are. And if you can help point them toward us, we can go ahead and get their packages expedited for the grant and get their homes adapted as quickly as possible.”
Alex Shebanow, a policy fellow at the National Student Legal Defense Network and the director of the documentary “Fail State,” spoke to the commission and showed them part of the film. “Fail State” investigates for-profit colleges and the policy decisions that helped give rise to “a powerful and highly predatory for-profit college industry,” according to the documentary’s website. The clip Shebanow showed included the story of a Marine veteran, Murray Hastie, who accumulated some $50,000 in student loans.
“My hope is that The American Legion, VFW, all the veteran service organizations around the country … we actually put a stop to this, because I’m tired of calling both veterans and civilian students and hearing them cry because they just didn’t know what hit them,” Shebanow said.
“I’ve met veterans with tens of thousands, some of them with over $100,000 in student loan debt, veterans who deployed, who served their entire contract,” said Ramond Curtis, state policy manager for Veterans Education Success. “… That’s unacceptable, as an advocate for veterans.”
Curtis also asked commission members to go back to their state and ensure that for-profit colleges are not targeting veterans by using veterans’ benefits to keep the schools afloat.
Other speakers at the commission meeting included VA Undersecretary of Benefits Dr. Paul Lawrence; Kate Burnett and Leslie Roose of the VA, who discussed Project Atlas, a program to set up video communication technologies and medical devices in selected American Legion and VFW posts to enable remote examinations through a secure, high-speed internet line; Bill Ashton of the USDA Military Veterans Agricultural Liaison Office of Partnerships and Engagement; and Larry Stubblefield, associate administrator of the Small Business Administration.