(Photo by Lucas Carter)

Legion reaches out to veterans in Charlotte

Walter Barber got a decent place to sleep last night because of The American Legion.

The 70-year-old North Carolina native had been sleeping at bus stops for the past month - he had nowhere else to go.

“I was incarcerated for six years and when my time was up, they dropped me off on the street and I was on my own,” said Barber, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War and was honorably discharged. “I did go down to the VA office from time to time and on my last visit they told me The American Legion was helping veterans out down here at the convention center.”

Remembering what he was told, he dropped by the Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) at the Charlotte Convention Center, which was held in conjunction with the Legion’s 96th Annual National Convention.

Not only did American Legion and VA staff get Barber a place at a local homeless shelter, they began the process of getting him pension benefits and government vouchers for temporary housing.

Verna Jones, director of The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said Barber’s case was a good example of how the Legion, VA and local providers are working together at each crisis center to improve the lives of veterans and their families.

“The American Legion homeless coordinator here on site worked with shelters in Charlotte that could help, and he also got help from the homeless coordinator at the VA hospital (in Salisbury, N.C.) and a social worker to help find permanent housing,” Jones said.

Barber was one of about 140 visitors who sought assistance at the VCCC in its first two days of operation; it is open today until 8 p.m. In addition to helping with VA enrollment and appointment scheduling, Jones said, many veterans who came to the center got help with filing for benefits earned through their military service. “So far, we’ve helped veterans get total of about $120,000 in benefits.”

Other services offered to veterans at the VCCC include a monitoring station where VA medical staff check blood pressure and heart rate. Some veterans are also referred to exercise and diet programs offered at VA’s community-based outpatient clinic in Charlotte.

Ron Abrams is assisting once again at the crisis center as The American Legion’s legal consultant; he is joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington. One interesting case he handled involved a veteran who had never filed a claim for any VA benefits. Abrams asked the man if he was interested in getting compensation for his service-connected disabilities, “and he said ‘Yes, but I don’t like to complain.’”

Abrams learned the 75-year-old veteran served in the Army from 1964 to 1994, with four tours of duty in Vietnam. He retired as a command sergeant major with more than 200 parachute jumps as a Ranger who worked with Special Forces.

“Today, as a result of his parachute jumps,” Abrams said, “his ankles, knees, elbows, shoulders, back are filled with arthritis, due to the trauma of all the jumps.” The service center manager at VA’s regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C., was quickly notified. “He took one look at this hero’s record, and said 'we’re going to get him service connection for all his physical ailments. We’re going to work on his post-traumatic stress disorder claim' – which we had to drag out of him.

“And when I asked him why, after being out of the service for 20 years, he didn’t file a claim sooner, his answer was, ‘Other veterans needed it more than I did."’

Helping such veterans, Abrams said, “makes me proud to be here, it shows the value of this Crisis Command Center, and I think that what The American Legion has done in creating this program, and putting it all over the country, has established the Legion as the leading service group in trying to obtain benefits for veterans. And the VA has been more than happy to help us at almost every spot.”

The American Legion has conducted VCCCs across the country since last June; future crisis centers will be conducted through October.