At an American Legion Veterans Crisis Command Center event in North Carolina last summer, a homeless veteran of the global war on terrorism discovered she was eligible for VA disability pay. She came to the command center hungry, worried and desperate for help. Her case was heard and adjudicated on the spot. The next day, $11,000 in retroactive compensation was deposited in her bank account. With the money, she and her son could move out of their car. Her first mission, however, was to get the boy a healthy meal.
She was one of more than 3,000 U.S. veterans who came to American Legion command centers throughout the country in the aftermath of VA’s widely publicized meltdown last spring. The centers were the Legion’s urgent response to fast-spreading revelations of long-delayed VA medical appointments, secret lists filled with the names of veterans who had no appointments at all, and allegations of falsified reports from managers who were paid bonuses based on those reports. A retired doctor stepped forward and told CNN in April that as many as 40 veterans had died waiting for unscheduled VA appointments in Phoenix. Dozens of other whistleblowers across the country soon followed, reporting similar practices, which led to the VA secretary’s resignation, congressional hearings, and federal legislation to increase staff and triage VA patients at non-VA facilities, all followed by reports, audits and debates about what happened and who could be blamed.
From the beginning of this debacle, The American Legion has been steadfast in its position, a position that has been validated over and over after months of face-to-face advocacy for veterans and families at our command centers, in the company of local VA staff and officials. The summary is this: the problem was not, and is not, isolated to Phoenix; ridiculously long waiting times for VA appointments have unnecessarily jeopardized the lives of veterans throughout the system for too long; anyone who falsified records that endangered veterans must be terminated from VA employment and, if warranted, criminally prosecuted; and the backlog of undecided VA benefits claims contributes mightily to the dilemma because care delayed is care denied.
The Legion is dedicated to solving the problem and helping restore trust, two goals we believe can be attained.
That is why we will continue to conduct town hall meetings and veterans outreach centers where face-to-face advocacy can produce real results for veterans and their families, like the mother we helped in North Carolina and thousands of others we assisted last summer and fall. We fully expect VA to be there with us as we work together to turn this year’s crisis into next year’s success story.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military men and women will separate from service in the coming years, joining millions more veterans. They are not numbers. They are human beings who took the oath to defend with their lives the freedoms we enjoy. No matter where The American Legion needs to go, no matter how many individuals we need to help face to face, our commitment to a lasting solution will never waver.