Legion reaches out to Washington-area vets

National staff members of The American Legion conducted a three-day revitalization and information campaign Sept. 14-16 to educate veterans and their families in the Washington area about health, employment and education benefits to which they are entitled.

An open house at American Legion Post 8 here featured presentations on topics ranging from health care and homelessness among veterans, to legislative efforts on Capitol Hill and veteran-owned business workshops. A Legion service officer also met with veterans about their benefit claims at the Legion's headquarters in downtown Washington.

"Ideally, (the purpose of this event) is to bring in as many veterans and active-duty members as we can reach out to, in order to talk to them about their benefits or what they're entitled to - and then ask them to consider membership in The American Legion to help these benefits stay intact legislatively," said Michelle Steinmetz, the Legion's assistant director of membership.

"The first thing I talk to them about, instead of saying, ‘We need you to pay your membership dues or join The American Legion,' is, ‘Do you know which entitlements you are eligible for? Do you know that there is representation for you to get these benefits that you're entitled to?'" Steinmetz said. "I make sure they're aware that there is VA availability for them, and that they know how to get a hold of those people."

Steinmetz emphasized the need for more awareness of health-care benefits among veterans, saying that too many of them fail to apply for their entitled care.

Leonard Hacker of Post 8 emphasized that increasing education benefits through a proposed expansion of the GI Bill could eliminate several issues that plague veterans.

"The extension of any educational program is worth its weight in gold," Hacker said. "It will eliminate homelessness, because an educated veteran is an employable veteran. Education is the cheapest repayment for service, because you're giving him something for the rest of his life.

"I always say that when I joined the service, I gave the government a blank check, including taking my life. By giving veterans an education, they're giving back some of that blank check."

Jose Torres, currently serving on active duty in the Marine Corps, visited Post 8 to help inform veterans about their VA benefits, saying that, while the military is obligated to explain such benefits, veterans also need to inform themselves.

"I think it should start with the military," Torres said. "I know that right now, the VA is putting out a program where any wounded vets, prior to coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, already have their (disability) ratings upon being discharged from the hospital. So they're starting to inform them a lot better. But (veterans) still need to research other benefits on their own."

Veterans interested in receiving more information on their earned benefits, or becoming a member of The American Legion can go to www.legion.org.