More than 150 Legionnaires, servicemembers and others attended The American Legion's Department Service Officer (DSO) School on Feb. 22 at the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. It was the first of two annual DSO schools that provided service officers with specialized, all-inclusive training on issues affecting veterans and their families nationwide.
“I think that every year and every session, (DSO School) gets better and better,” said Verna Jones, executive director of the Legion’s Washington office. “The things that service officers do is life-changing for those veterans. … they really do God’s work.”
DSO School is geared for the professional accredited American Legion representative, to include those from the regional office, county and state levels.
Louis Celli Jr., director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, said the purpose behind DSO School is to give service officers the best that the Legion has to offer so they can continue to learn and grow.
The bottom line, Celli said, is that veterans need advocates and compassionate people who can help them, regardless of need. The Legion takes a lot of pride in putting DSO School together as it strives toward the betterment of veteran communities nationwide, according to Celli.
Accredited service officers are specially trained to provide expert assistance, free of charge, to veterans and their families. While the majority of a service officer’s work involves application for VA disability benefits and representation for appeals, they also provide information, referrals and resources on education, employment, business, death benefits and other important topics.
“I can’t begin to tell you how important it is when these vets make their first contact with you,” said Heather Osborne, a liaison for the Veterans Benefits Administration. “Your attention to detail is crucial.”
Osborne said she appreciates the challenges that service officers take on as helping veterans and trying to give them hope is no easy job.
“You’re usually the first face that they see,” she said. “Sometimes it (becomes mentally challenging and) it’s even emotional because you’ve got to feel some sympathy. You’ve got to sympathize with these vets because you’ve been in their shoes or you know someone who’s been in their shoes.”
Air Force veteran Mike Carr – who is the assistant director of Web communications/social media for the VBA – spoke about Benefits Assistance Service, including eBenefits and how a servicemember, veteran, family member or stakeholder communicates with the administration. According to Carr, this includes special emphasis and outreach; Web communications; quality, training and site visits; and a transition assistance program.
Carr encouraged service officers to make the most out of eBenefits, which provides a single sign-on, central access point to clinical and benefits information. Thanks to a collaboration between VA and the Department of Defense, eBenefits was specifically designed to serve veterans, servicemembers, wounded warriors, family members and authorized caregivers, the website noted.
“You can go online and do it yourself. That is a big deal,” said Carr. “It’s not always perfect but it’s giving us an opportunity to be able to fix (issues when they arise).”
Caroline Park, the associate scientific director of U.S. Hepatology for AbbVie Pharmaceuticals, gave a presentation about Hepatitis C and its impact on veterans. She said the rate of Hep C “is a lot higher in veterans than it is in the general population.”
Park mentioned that VA received $1.5 billion in congressional appropriations to treat all veterans with Hep C, and it might be possible to eliminate the virus from the veteran population in three years. Veteran service organizations can help eradicate the virus by spreading the word to veterans to get screened for Hep C at the VA, according to Park.
“Number one, recognize that they have a higher rate of infection. Number two, encourage them to go to the VA – the way that they screen for Hep C is a blood test,” said Park. “And then number three, help the veterans at the VA.”
On Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 at the Washington Hilton Hotel, the Legion held two separate intermediate/advanced sessions for DSO School participants.
John Hickey, a service office director for The American Legion Department of Indiana, participated in the Feb. 24 training session. Hickey described what he learned overall from the DSO topics discussed, some of which included the VA appeal process, medical advocacy, gunshot wounds, establishing service connection/proper evaluation for heart conditions, and strategies for dealing with VA errors.
“(The biggest challenge is) probably working with the number of claims that we have coming into the office – trying to go through those claims and find out which ones we need to spend more time on, and which ones doesn’t require much of our time so we can properly allocate our resources and continue working with veterans,” he said.
Headquartered in downtown Indianapolis, Hickey and the rest of the veterans service office team work closely with the regional VA office to manage and assist veterans with their claims and benefits.
From fielding several hundred phone calls to processing more than 500 claims every month, Hickey said his group is dedicated to providing veterans with the best service.
“It’s quite a job – volunteers are one of the most important parts of that operation,” Hickey said. “We want to try and get the maximum benefit possible for that person."