In 2017, U.S. Army retiree Marc Stratton was suffering various symptoms, including sleeplessness, when his wife urged him to get checked for PTSD. He didn’t want to because he was “embarrassed,” but he did so anyway. Then his wife told him she wanted him to get evaluated beyond that. “She told me ‘I want you back the way you were,’” said Stratton, whose military career included multiple tours in the Middle East.
Stratton was convinced by family members in Virginia to come east to what was then Cary, N.C., American Legion Post 67’s Veterans Experience Action Center (VEAC) – a three-day event that brought veteran service officers and staff from the Department of Veterans Affairs face to face with veterans seeking to file or check on pending benefits claims, enroll in VA health care and tackle other issues involving VA.
At the VEAC, Marc found out he had service-connected claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs he didn’t know were available to him. And he left with a little more than that, saying he was “feeling confident I’m going to get the help that I need. If that’s compensation, so be it. But the first thing I want to know is what’s wrong. I want to know what’s going on because money’s not going to fix that.”
It turns out in the veteran community, it’s a small world.
After a two-year break because of the global pandemic, American Legion Post 67 again was able to put on a similar event, staging what now is called Veterans Benefits Live (VBL) on March 17-19 at the Herbert C. Young Community Center. And attending the VBL’s Day 1 were Stephen Stratton, Marc’s brother, and Stephen’s wife Sharon. Both are veterans – Sharon of the U.S. Air Force and Stephen the Army – and both came seeking information on VA benefits they are seeking.
For Sharon, attending the VBL and meeting in person someone from the Veterans Benefits Administration “was very valuable. I got information today that I’ve been trying to get the last couple of years. That was accomplished today.”
It was the same for her husband, who said similar events are not available where they live in Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Post 67 providing an event such as the VBL shows the Legion cares “about the veterans, to make sure we get the help and the information we need to be productive the rest of our post-military service.”
Post 67 Commander Richard Spyrison, who coordinated all three VEACs and now the VBL, said being able to stage the event after the two-year hiatus “was fabulous. Looking back over the last couple of days, the need is greater right now. To see a veteran walk in the door with a chip on their shoulder and exit with a smile on their face – whether they got their rating or not, he knows what he’s got to do to finish, he’s got the answer he needs. That’s a big weight off their shoulder.”
The VBL also had various agencies set up with tables in the waiting area, including Humana, VA’s Vet Center and the Durham VA Health Care System. Veterans were not only able to enroll in the VA health-care system, but also get ID cards printed out on the spot. More than 200 veterans were able to get cards through the VBL.
Spyrison, who still is waiting to get official numbers from VA officials, estimates around 400 veterans attended the VBL’s opening day on Thursday, while another 650 came during Friday’s and Saturday’s sessions.
Those kinds of numbers ease the workload for North Carolina’s Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, said Terry Westbrook, the department’s deputy director for Veterans Affairs. Westbrook made it a point to stop by Day 1 and was impressed with what he saw.
“It’s hard to emphasize just how important (the VBL) is, because the big thing that this event does is it takes a strain off the entire system,” Westbrook said. “In three days, they do the same thing that it might take the rest of us a year to get done. Our VSOs, they’re about nothing more than getting claims developed and processed. That’s what we want to do, and we want to do it for every single veteran there is.”
Westbrook said the VBL allows veterans who might otherwise fall through the cracks to get the help they need. “(They) are a piece of the population in North Carolina that we may or may not ever get to see again,” he said. “They’re rural veterans. They’re people that are out and about. It’s incredible how much the collaboration means. The American Legion does a fantastic job with this one. Richard Spyrison and his post are really, really good at what they do with this process.”
It also gives Westbrook’s staff an opportunity to meet with veterans in person, rather than over the phone or via email. “I tell our folks all the time that we are about public contact. That’s what we want to do,” he said. “We don’t want to talk on the phone. We don’t want to do virtual meetings. We’re 100 percent about … getting to see these veterans. The veteran can’t tell (their) story if they’re not sitting there to speak. You can see whatever you want to see on a piece of paper, but unless they’re there to tell that story, you don’t get that piece of information that’s going to matter. Having it happen face to face … is how to do it.”
A similar sentiment was expressed during the VBL by Jim Wartski, executive director of Veterans, Family and Community Engagement in VA’s Veterans Experience Office. “I am a true believer in working with the community in in-person events,” he said. “That’s what we live for – when we know we’re serving veterans.”
Wartski said teaming up with The American Legion helps VA perform its mission. “We’re a partnership, and really, the way I look at it … we depend so heavily on our community of partnerships,” he said. “The way I look at it, the community always runs the show, and I’m pleased that at the dinner table they invite the VA.”
Legionnaire Derrick Mitchell, a member of Post 284 in Colonial Heights, Va., and an American Legion-accredited veteran service officer, came to a previous VEAC, bringing with him his father and some other veterans to receive assistance. Two of those veterans left the event with a 100-percent disability rating; the results had Mitchell bringing more veterans this year. And this time, the retired Army veteran decided to help at the VBL all three days.
Being able to meet face to face with a VA rep allows “you to cut down on a lot of the red tape,” Mitchell said. “You can’t beat the in person, obviously. When you see (veterans) walk out you see them smiling, like they have this big weight lifted off them. They learn what they need to do and get pointed in the right direction.”
That’s the mission of the VEACs and now, the VBL. “If we can help one veteran, just one, we’ve done our job. If we can help two, that’s gravy. And that’s our objective,” Spyrison said. “We’re veterans helping veterans. If we don’t do this and don’t take the initiative to get something like this going … nobody’s going to do it. Nobody’s going to help these people, and they’re going to continue to get lost in the system. They need it so much. Yeah, it’s a lot of work. But the reward of seeing them get something accomplished and get some answers … that’s why we do it.”