North Carolina veterans benefits centers changing lives by the thousands

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Nearly 800 veterans poured into an American Legion Veterans Crisis Command Center last summer in Fayetteville, N.C., where firsthand help was provided to those who had been waiting for long-delayed VA benefits decisions and access to health-care facilities.

That response told American Legion Department of North Carolina Service Officer Cajun Comeau that a need exists to continue with similar centers in his state. With the assistance of the department, and with cooperation from VA, Comeau has made that happen – with some amazing results.

At the department’s most recent Veterans Benefits Action Center (VBAC) at Post 70 in Asheville, N.C., 131 veterans came through the door over the course of three days. There, those veterans found county and state service officers – all accredited by The American Legion – working within shouting distance of staff from VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration and Veterans Health Administration.

The result of that combined effort was nearly $600,000 in retroactive pay awarded on the spot. Veterans also were enrolled in VA health care and could ask questions about VA’s Choice Program. Homeless veterans also were connected VA housing programs during the outreach event.

“I am greatly surprised at the monetary amount,” Comeau said. “I’m not surprised whatsoever by the life-changing events (at the center). These are things we see event after event. We see people crying, jumping up and down. That’s why we do this. We’re positively touching people’s lives that otherwise would not have been touched. That’s what The American Legion is doing. We’re reaching out. We are re-establishing the connection with individuals where they live.”

The first North Carolina VBAC took place at Post 116 in Fuquay-Varina; 246 veterans attended and more than $342,000 in retroactive benefits were paid out. And at Post 265 in Jacksonville in January, a staggering 1,031 veterans came through the door, walking away with more than $227,000 in retroactive benefits.

The centers are designed, Comeau said, “with the intent of being able to expedite and/or adjudicate claims, appeals and health-care concerns on the spot.” And that’s what they’re doing. Many veterans left the center knowing they were getting five-digit retroactive payments. One topped $115,000.

Among the success stories:

• U.S. Army veteran Hugh Wiggins found out about the Asheville VBAC that morning and drove more than 100 miles to resolve an unemployability claim he’s had with VA since 2008. He was granted both the claim and retroactive compensation. “I was a little leery … after what I’ve gone through," he said. “It just blew me away. What it means is the money that I need. When you live on a fixed income, every extra penny is help. It’s a blessing. It’s the best day of my life.”

• U.S. Navy veteran Richard Pressley had been dealing with a VA claim for knee surgery for about 10 years. He came to the center “because I haven’t heard (about) it in awhile,” he said. “I got a good decision. It’s a big boost in my financial status. It’s been a burden, waiting around trying to find out.”

• U.S. Marine Corps veteran Wayne Hardison heard about the center from an acquaintance and drove six and a half hours from Fredericksburg, Va. He was rated on the spot. “For the past five years I’ve been trying to get this done,” he said. “I was never able to speak to the same person twice. I never had someone that I could talk to twice and that really cared. When I came here, even the way I was greeted at the door, I felt comfortable. They explained everything. When you’re helped the way that I was helped … you just want to be able to pass it along.”

• Michael Jordan served in the U.S. Army from 2003-2011 and was rated at 80 percent service-connected. He had been seeking an increase since 2011 and, in the process of waiting for a ruling, lost his house to foreclosure and was forced to move from Fayetteville to Canton, N.C., with his children. He has been living with family, his children sleeping on pallets. “I came here, they took down all my information, did whatever they had to do, and I’m set,” he said. “They are retro-paying me back. They have put me in for my temporary 100 percent (rating) until the exams that are scheduled to come through. Once the exams come through, it will be up to 100 percent permanent. It’s like a 300-pound weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don’t have to constantly worry, ‘Am I going to be able to provide housing for my boys because I only make a certain amount of money?’ I haven’t really, truly smiled and felt good on the inside in a long, long time. Until today.”

• U.S. Army veteran Jill Baker’s claim has been “dragging on” for more than two years, she said. She came to the VBAC rated at 70 percent and walked out the door rated 100 percent with Chapter 35 benefits for her family. “This has changed my life,” she said. “Financially it’s changed my life, but even bigger than that, I now have the opportunity to heal. Every time I go to the doctor I get re-evaluated. Today is the last time. Now I can put that in my history.”

• Allen Greene, who served in the U.S. Army from 1976 to 1980, was told about the center by Department of North Carolina Assistant Department Service Officer Larry Fowler, who had been handling his claim. Greene was rated 100 percent on a claim that had been pending 11 years. “It means everything,” Greene said. “It’s a life-changer to be 100 percent, and then we got eight years of back pay. The American Legion, they made it all possible with (Fowler) and the network they work with to help the veterans. It allows me to focus 100 percent on my health.”

Seeing Greene’s claim resolved on the spot was the high point of the three days for Fowler, a member of Post 2 in Asheville. “This means everything, literally everything, to me,” he said. “They’re good people, and I worked really hard to see this resolved for them. They deserved it. This is the best day in my 20 years of doing this. You want to do your best for those you’re serving."

Not everyone who came into the center walked out with retroactive benefits. But Comeau said each veteran needs to know they got The American Legion's best effort. “What we want to make sure is that nobody walks away from here feeling as if everything that could be done wasn’t done,” he said. “That’s the end goal. We want to take that one person as far as they can possibly go today.”