American Legion Past National Commander Tom Bock, left, visits with veterans waiting for assistance at the Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center in Fort Collins, Colo. (Photo by Sean Crosier)

'I feel like I have hope now'

A U.S. Navy Vietnam War veteran, Peter has been trying to get a Department of Veterans Affairs service connection for exposure to Agent Orange for more than three years. Running out of hope, he came July 15 to The American Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) in Fort Collins, Colo., to see if any help was available.

Peter – who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons – left the center a much happier man. After meeting with Legion claims representative Ron Abrams, he also met with a Veterans Benefits Administration employee. Both meetings left Peter feeling a bit better about his case.

“These were the best meetings I’ve had in three and a half years,” Peter said. “This is first time I actually talked to people who knew what I was talking about. I’m thrilled.

"I’ve been warned it’s going to be a long process, but (the VA rep) felt that he could put a case together to reopen my Agent Orange claim. I think that’s fantastic. I feel like I have hope now.”

Peter was one of 44 veterans who came to the VCCC on its opening day. The center was set up after a recent VA internal investigation showed long wait times for veterans seeking treatment at a local VA community-based outpatient clinic (CBOC). Many veterans treated at the Fort Collins CBOC had to wait several months for their appointments, and clerks there were instructed on how to falsify appointment records so it appeared the clinic was meeting VA’s goal of scheduling veterans for medical appointments within 14 days. Similar falsification of scheduling records also took place at the nearby Cheyenne (Wy.) VA Medical Center.

Abrams was present at the center, along with Department of Colorado Service Officer Dean Casey, Legion national staff, department volunteers, and Veterans Health Administration and VBA employees from Denver, Fort Collins and Cheyenne.

“The way we see it, it’s a team effort to support veterans,” said Paul Roberts, associate director of the Cheyenne VAMC. “So any activity that is interested in veterans care, veterans support, and helping veterans get the care they need or benefits they need, we’re able and willing to be a part of that. It’s a partnership.”

Casey, who stayed busy all day dealing with benefits claims, said bringing the VCCC to Fort Collins was critical. “Speaking for myself, I only get up here when I’m invited,” Casey said. “They’ve got a county service officer who is very aggressive, but a county service officer can only handle so many (claims). There’s a lot of areas in Colorado that need the same thing. This gets the veterans in to nail these things. Otherwise, it’s whenever we can get over there.”

The VCCC opens at Post 4, 2124 Country Road 54 G, at 8 a.m. today and will remain open until 8 p.m. – the same hours as Thursday. On Friday, the center’s hours are 8 a.m.-noon. A similar VCCC is taking place simultaneously in St. Louis.