Legion service officer Dean Casey helps Vietnam veteran Andrew Smith apply for VA medical benefits during the Veterans Benefits Claims Fair Feb. 21. (Photo by Crag Roberts)

Legion sponsors first claims fair

The American Legion conducted its first Veterans Benefits Claims Fair on Feb. 21 at the Washington Hilton Hotel, where veterans got help in filing disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Several of the Legion's department service officers (DSOs), and service officers from other veterans service organizations, were on hand to provide assistance.

The claims fair was in conjunction with a career fair for veterans that was co-sponsored by the Legion and RecruitMilitary. "We figured that a lot of veterans looking for employment could also use some help with identifying VA benefits they might be eligible for," said Rich Dumancas, the Legion's deputy director for benefits. "We're here to do that and help them start the application process."

The Legion also conducted its Department Service Officers School last week, and the claims fair served a second purpose by providing a training opportunity for newer service officers.

"The only way you learn this job is to sit down and do a claim," said Brian Mullican, a DSO from Virginia. "We're pairing the less-experienced DSOs with ones who are more seasoned. It really is a two-fold purpose: We take care of getting the veteran filed for benefits, and it trains our people so they can do a better job when they go home."

Mullican, who brought seven service officers with him, said he would share training from the claims fair and DSO school with more accredited and post service officers in the Department f Virginia. "It's a way of getting everybody on the same page," he said.

The Feb. 21 claims fair attracted many veterans who lacked the records to develop fully developed claims (FDCs), so Legion service officers filed what are known as informal claims – a very important step for veterans to take in filing for benefits, according to Lori Perkio, assistant director for the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation (VA&R) Division.

"Filing an informal claim lets VA know that the veteran needs to gather more info, but intends to file a claim with documentation within a year," Perkio said. If VA eventually awards benefits to that veteran, the effective date is the day on which the informal claim was filed. "So the veteran doesn't lose up to a year of benefits," she said.

Perkio said it made a lot of sense for the Legion to hold its first claims fair in the nation's capital. "We have so many military installations in the D.C. area," she said. "We are also doing Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) claims for those who are getting ready to leave active duty. And for veterans in general who need assistance with their claims, we're here to give them a kick-start, take their information, and submit that claim for them."

Kelly Ackerman, a DSO from Montana, said the claims fair offered "phenomenal training for our new service officers. They're gaining more knowledge and tricks of the trade in claims guidance." She said a lot can be learned by "sitting with an experienced DSO who is speaking with veterans about their claims."

Department service officers are an invaluable Legion resource, Ackerman said, because, "Veterans trying to go through the claims process on their own often don't know about the forms that need to be filled out." DSO's not only help out with paperwork, but "explain what will happen at the compensation and pension examination, and what information that veterans need to gather."

For instance, Ackerman said, if a veteran is suffering from migraine headaches, "keeping a journal on those headaches – and how often they happen, and the severity – is really important. But people don't get that from a letter, or a brochure, or a pamphlet. It's not just filling out a form, it's letting veterans know what to expect every step of the way through that VA claims process."

Suzette Price, a DSO and service director for the Department of Ohio, and two of the less-experienced service officers helped out an Air Force servicemember about to retire. "He was a First Gulf War combat veteran, so we explained to him about Gulf War presumptive illnesses and encouraged him to use the medical resources he has now on active duty" and to educate himself about those conditions "to ensure that whatever problems he's having, that he gets a proper diagnosis, and that any symptomology gets recorded prior to his retiring," Price said.

This individual, it turned out, knew nothing about VA's recent decisions concerning Gulf War veterans. "We educated him on those presumptive illnesses," Price said, and talked about how people may "tend to ignore the every-day aches and pains when we are on active duty. We also explained what would happen with his BDD claim and concurrent receipt (receiving retirement benefits and disability benefits at the same time)."

The first Legion-sponsored claims fair turned out to be a hit among D.C.-area veterans. "This is another major effort on our part to improve our outreach efforts to veterans," said Verna Jones, director of the Legion's VA & R Division. "Many of our veterans aren't getting the benefits they have earned, simply because they need help in navigating the VA system."

Jones said the claims fair gave local veterans the chance to "connect with veterans service officers who know the VA system extremely well, and can make sure our veterans get enrolled and start to receive their benefits. In today's economy, that can make all the difference in the world for a veteran and her loved ones."

Mullican said the claims fair is a way to remind veterans, "that we're here to help you, and we're going to give you all the information you need. We're empowering those veterans and servicemembers."