A year of hands-on help for veterans

A year of hands-on help for veterans

One year ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs was in the throes of its greatest crisis. Veterans were dying as they waited for health care, administrators were falsifying records, poorly performing executives were receiving outlandish bonuses, and a culture of fear and retaliation discouraged whistleblowers from improving conditions.

An inspector general’s report later revealed what The American Legion had been saying for months: the problems were not limited to the heavily reported abuses at the VA medical center in Phoenix. VA was experiencing a systemic failure in facilities across the country.

The crisis led to needed changes. The VA secretary and one undersecretary resigned. Congressional hearings ensued, and the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was passed. And while progress has been painfully slow within VA, no program is doing more to change the lives of those affected by VA’s problems than the Legion’s own Veterans Benefit Centers (VBCs).

The first stop for the program was Phoenix, the epicenter of the crisis. Hundreds of veterans gathered last June at American Legion Post 1 for a town hall and told horror story after horror story of unanswered calls, insensitive health-care providers and extreme delays. National media considered the event ground zero for the entire VA crisis and swarmed to report on what was then called the American Legion Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC).

Most importantly, the Legion sent experts to help. An estimated 590 veterans were assisted with health-care enrollment, appointment scheduling, benefits applications and appeals representation. Four were granted 100 percent service-connected disability ratings on the spot at the Phoenix event, and one terminally ill veteran received benefits that will help his dependents pay for college. Another learned he was eligible for $60,000 in retroactive disability pay. The Legion conducted similar events in North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, California, Missouri, Maryland, West Virginia, Hawaii, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. 

Michael Harvey, an Air Force veteran, suffered an eye injury and hearing loss while serving as an avionics technician. He is contesting his 10 percent disability rating and attended a VBC in Los Angeles. “The American Legion is going to help me on this appeal – and I have a contact in Washington, D.C., now,” Harvey said. “This is like somebody throwing me a lifesaver. I was lost in the bureaucratic maze of VA.”


Through the first 14 events, nearly 4,000 have been helped and more than $1 million in retroactive benefits has been awarded to frustrated, homeless and disabled veterans. “We are here, in fact, to help,” Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission Chairman Ralph Bozella said of the program, which is continuing with VBCs at least once a month through 2015, with new locations now being scheduled. You can follow these events at www.legion.org or, for a downloadable report about the events to date, click on “From Crisis to Confidence” at www.legion.org/publications. We are listening, learning and helping VA to change its culture, repair problems and, most importantly, restore trust among the veterans it was built to serve.