In three days, The American Legion Department of North Carolina’s Veterans Benefits Action Center (VBAC) in Asheville, N.C., netted veterans nearly $600,000 in retroactive Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.
Three such department VBACs have brought in more than $1.1 to the veterans attending in recent months. But that kind of success wouldn’t be possible, Department of North Carolina Service Officer Cajun Comeau says, without a clearly defined and dedicated alliance between the Legion, county and state service officers, and staff from VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
Legion, county and state service officers can see a veteran’s claim through part of the process, Comeau said. But …
“Without VBA, this event is the same as any other event,” said Comeau, the organizer and overseer of the VBACs in North Carolina. “We file claims, we take power of attorney, we tell the veteran we recommend courses of action, we assist them in determining if they’re eligible for benefits under the law. Then it would stop. They’d walk out and nothing would be adjudicated. Nothing would be finished. They would be happy for a limited amount of time until they figured out their claim was going to take another three to seven months.
“In this case, VBA is the executory and the enabling factor. That’s the reason people are walking out crying. That’s the reason people are dancing jigs in the parking lot. VBA’s the one (who) can grant or deny. Without them … we can get you 60 percent of the way. We’re the advocate.”
Steve Robertson, a member of American Legion Post 61 in Canton, N.C., and a district service officer for the North Carolina Division of Veterans Affairs, recommended coming to the center to many of the veterans he represents – because of what happens with a VBA presence at the center. “Now (veterans) get resolution,” he said. “(It’s) winning (for veterans). They can hear it. They get that verdict.”
Walt Ward, a service officer with Buncombe County and a member of North Carolina American Legion Post 1981, spent more than 30 years working for the VBA. Now on the other side, he sees a huge advantage to having service officers working side by side with his former employer.
“There’s so much frustration out there,” Ward said. “We spend a good part of our time answering inquires about ‘where is my claim now?’ Once we heard this program was coming, we started telling people, ‘We know where your claim is, but if you show up … we know what will happen. We know that your claim is ready. It’s just a matter of getting to it.’ And it’s worked out great.
“It adds a whole new level of satisfaction to our job. Here we can say, ‘We can show you a face. It’s not a nameless bureaucrat. It’s somebody who’s working for you.’”
The alliance made a difference to the veterans who sought help at the center in Asheville. Jill Baker was able to get her disability rating increased to 100 percent at the VBAC. “Today, for the first time, I feel like something other than a number,” she said. “If you can sit down with a human being and look them in the eye, there’s just a whole different level of communication available in a situation like this.”
It was the same for Allen Greene, who also was granted a 100-percent rating on a pending claim. “All we wanted was to just sit down with someone just once,” Greene said. “Of course we understand how busy they are, but it’s just phenomenal to get to sit down and talk to them and tell them what’s going on. They’re all anxious to help you. It’s just I think their time doesn’t allow (that.)”
Kristina Hamilton, assistant division manager at VA’s Regional Office in Winston-Salem, N.C., said VBA employees look forward to getting out and working face to face with veterans.
“We have several employees who love, and volunteer any time we have an event, to be able to come out and to be able to put a face with a claim number,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s been great for them. People who we bring out for a first time usually volunteer to come back because they’re able to see the person they’re helping. We have several who come back every time.”
VBA employees weren’t the only ones experiencing intense job satisfaction during the VBAC. It was the same for Robertson, who saw several veterans he knows personally get the help they needed. “It’s a numbing feeling,” he said. “This is the first event like this for me. You do your thing day to day, and the results are not always visible. (Here), you get validation for that veteran. And you also get that personal validation that, ‘Hey, it is worth all the training and everything you went through to get these people here.’”
That the Legion made the event happen was a bonus. “I’m totally proud. Out front, leading the way. That’s what I look at the Legion as: pioneers, ground-breaking. It’s the people who are part of that organization. They believe in it.”
And Comeau believes in the power of the VBAC, even if it does require a lot of work. “This is a monster -- it really is,” he said. “It’s an all-encompassing effort, and I do have individuals that enable and assist me. However, the onus for the execution and the responsibility for everything that happens here is, in the end, on me. I can delegate authority, but not that responsibility. I take that very seriously because not only am I representing the Department of North Carolina, but I’m representing The American Legion and that emblem that is on this event that is the trademark of our organization.”