South Carolina Legion provides benefits help and other assistance to more than 1,100 veterans

South Carolina Legion provides benefits help and other assistance to more than 1,100 veterans

In March of 2023, the American Legion Department of South Carolina conducted its first Veterans Experience Action Center (VEAC), taking the idea from what has been become an incredibly successful program in North Carolina. The VEAC brings together veterans face to face with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs staff, state agencies and service officers to receive claims and appeals assistance, sometime providing decisions and disability ratings the spot.

South Carolina’s first VEAC was attended by 717 veterans. A smaller regional event in Spartanburg later in the resulted in 355 veterans getting some form of assistance, again showing the need for the program in the state. And that need was on full display during the department’s latest VEAC, which took place March 21-23 at the Bluff Road National Guard Armory in Columbia.

During the event’s three days, 1,132 veterans were able to meet with VA and state staff, and service officers to discuss their disability claims and appeals, enroll in VA health care, receive housing assistance and guidance, and learn more about mental health counseling, and memorial and employment benefits. A mobile VA VET Center also was on site, as were representatives from other veteran service organizations and veteran-centric vendors. The event was a collaboration between the Department of South Carolina, VA and the South Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs.  

“We figured this one was going to be bigger for three reasons,” said Past Department of South Carolina Commander Jim Jarvis, who coordinated the Legion’s participation in the VEAC and has been involved with the program since its inception in his state. “The main reason was word of mouth now, because we got all kinds of positive feedback when they were leaving (the previous VEACs). Another area of significance was that on March 5 they opened up the window on the PACT Act, so we figured we’d get PACT Act questions. But the third one was that we were going to have the C&P (Compensation & Pension) exam. We had two contractors brought in … and that made a difference.

“So come Thursday morning when I got there, I almost had a heart attack. Instead of that trickling in, we were getting hit by 20 to 30 people at a time.”

The heavy traffic continued throughout the weekend, up until closing time on Saturday. And with 55 veterans still in need of assistance, VA leadership opened up their Columbia Regional Office the following Monday to handle those claims.

During the VEAC’s three-plus days, 497 C&P specific exams were conducted, 69 ratings decisions made, and 462 new claims filed (which Jarvis said could eventually almost double). In addition to VA staff, 12 accredited veteran service officers also were in attendance to assist with claims.

“We’re giving them the opportunity to sit on one side of the table with a rater or a VSO on the other side table, face to face, putting them the system, the whole nine yards,” Jarvis said. “I think that’s what makes the difference. And there’s so much out there that I don’t even think they know they’re eligible for.”

Volunteers played a critical in helping the VEAC be a success. Jarvis said he had American Legion Family members from 25 posts assisting the effort, including Legion Riders directing the parking lot and other Legion Family members helping with registration, manning snack tables and passing out water. Around 50-60 volunteers showed up each day, some driving as far as six hours round trip.

“The volunteers are what made it work,” Jarvis said. “Without the volunteers we would have never pulled it off. And I have not lacked for volunteers.”

Jarvis also praised South Carolina National Guard leadership for providing free use of the Bluff Road Armory. “They’re critical to the whole scenario because nowhere could I go in town and find anyplace big enough that wasn’t going to charge me $25,000-$30,000,” he said. “The South Carolina National Guard is critical.”

Jarvis credits the Department of North Carolina for inspiring his state’s efforts and hopes other departments will follow suit.

“Our whole purpose in life is veterans helping veterans,” he said. “This is the best thing in the world, because very few people truly understand the VA. I’m very proud of this. I think it’s worked. I’m proud of the fact it’s a Legion event.

“I’m able to pull together five, six major organizations, which is always hard, and we seem to be working in the same direction … we’re helping the veterans.”

To watch News 19 WLTX’s video coverage of the VEAC, click here.