The impact of an American Legion service officer

After two deployments to Iraq, Army veteran Shawn Meyer struggled with integrating back into civilian life.

First, it was gambling. Then his addiction turned to drinking.

“I didn't adjust well,” recalled Meyer, who was a Bradley mechanic with 1st Armored Division 26 out of Baumholder, Germany. “I battled addiction a lot. I went to drinking heavily to just forget about everything. And I would wake up and I would drink and I would go to sleep and I would drink. And I wouldn't remember anything. So I felt good because I didn't remember anything. I had nothing on my mind. I was not dealing with anything that had happened or that I'd seen.”

He says he “screwed up my life for a good 10 years,” before getting sober Sept., 29, 2013. But then the horrors started over again.

“I started remembering and the depression, the panic, the anxiety, my previous life, it all came back to me and I had no vice to go to,” said Meyer, who lives in Brandon, S.D.

Even though he was skeptical of the Department of Veterans Affairs based on a previous experience, he put his trust in Courtney VanZanten, the service officer for The American Legion Department of South Dakota.

“I need help,” he told her.

As an accredited service officer through The American Legion, VanZanten is trained to help veterans like Meyer. Some veterans need to enroll in the VA. Others need assistance with complicated benefits claims. There are a myriad of tasks service officers perform for free for any veteran.

VanZanten helped Meyer get enrolled in VA, a process which means that in the coming months he will obtain benefits he previously did not receive. For his PTSD, anxiety and depression related to his service, his disability rating will be 70 percent.

“She said she could help me,” recalled Meyer. “She came and did all the paperwork right there at my convenience. I can't go too many places, I don't feel safe. So she came right to my house and we did the paperwork and she took care of everything for me. The award is nice, but I learned a long time ago money won't buy you happiness. Courtney gives me hope.”

VanZanten, an Air Force veteran, has been a service officer for about five years. Like all American Legion service officers, her training and support are funded by The American Legion’s Veterans & Children Foundation (V&CF).

The foundation provides critical training for service officers so they can remain updated on different procedures, benefits and more so they can assist veterans.

“It's world-class training,” she said. “We get up-to-date training on court law coming through. Great examples of the latest cases that could make an impact on our veterans. When Blue Water Navy rolled through, we were right on top of getting our veterans into the VA. When hearing loss claims were opened up to National Guardsmen and Reserve, we were on top of it.”

VanZanten is appreciative of the support from those who support her work through donations to V&CF. (To make a contribution, please visit this page.)

"It's crucial to have information roll down to us through the training,” she explained. “And being told how to present cases in the best way possible, so when it does get into the regional offices in the VA, or if you do have a case that makes it up to the BVA, you're presenting the best case possible for your veteran. That's the kind of training that we're provided. That's the advantage of going through an American Legion service officer.”

Rodney Smith knows the importance of VanZanten’s work.

Smith, a Brown Water Navy vet from the Vietnam War, had a memorable encounter the first time he visited VA in 1988.

“I went down to the VA and had a horrible experience,” he recalled. “And to follow up, they sent me back to a doctor and I ended up in the women's clinic to see a gynecologist that they were contracting with. I said I'd never, ever be back.”

At the urging of his uncle, Smith returned to VA about 20 years later and had a better experience. But it wasn’t until he connected with VanZanten that he realized all his benefits.

“I got my glasses through them and basically I was pretty much done,” he said. “I'd go in occasionally for the annual physical. That was about it. When Courtney became our Legion veteran service officer, it was just the difference between night and day. She'd fill out the papers, she knew what questions to ask. She worked very hard on my behalf.”

With her help Smith, who is a diabetic, now get his insulin from VA. He’s also had two surgeries and acupuncture to cure a shoulder blade that bothered him for 20 years. And that’s not all.

“They also found an aneurysm and part of that was with Courtney's pushing,” he said. “I said I wasn't getting enough air, I was breathless. She kept telling me that I need to push it. I need to get back into VA and I need to follow up on this. Without her pushing, I never would've done that. They found an enlarged aorta coming out my heart and they called it an aneurysm, which scared the hell out of me at first.”

The aneurysm seems to be under control now. If an August check doesn’t reveal any changes, Smith should be in the clear.

With VanZanten’s assistance, Smith’s disability rating has increased from 10 percent to 70 percent.

“It's about the most important things in the VA system, the Legion system,” he said. “Without the help of Courtney and other service officers around the state and around the country, it'd just be a mess. I was an educator for 22 years and I hate paperwork. Having someone who knows the system and knows which paperwork I should have, it's just been unbelievable.

“Courtney makes it easy because she knows what questions to ask and she does it in a conversational tone, manner and draws things out that I wasn't sure I'd ever say to another human.”

Serving veterans like Smith and Meyer fulfill VanZanten, who is commander of American Legion Post 136 in Chester, S.D.

“It's pretty incredible,” she said. “This is an incredibly rewarding position. I care deeply about all of my veterans. My work with the Legion is very important to me. To know that it has such a resounding impact, not only on my veterans, but on their lives, their spouse's lives, their family's lives, and therefore the lives of those in their communities, it's pretty awesome.”