(Photo by Michael Rushton)

Legion crisis center helps more than 400 in El Paso

The American Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center in El Paso provided assistance last week to 410 veterans and family members affected by long wait-times for medical appointments the local Department of Veterans Affairs medical center.

The Legion, along with VA staff, Legionnaire volunteers and other organizations, set up the crisis center at American Legion Post 58 to provide help with medical appointments, benefits claims, bereavement counseling and other services.

Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said the number of visitors in El Paso was lower than those at crisis centers in Phoenix and Fayetteville, N.C., but "the veterans who did come to see us generally needed a lot of help. We were able to get on-the-spot benefits with back pay for 74 veterans that totaled more than $460,000. That number will increase as claims are processed through the system. We helped one veteran who has been trying to settle his benefits claim since 1970. This was the first time he'd received any assistance."

One woman who visited the center had power-of-attorney for her husband, who is in a nursing home facility. "She was trying to get her husband's disability claim increased," Jones said. "It should have been 100 percent, and he was getting paid a lot less than that. She was paying a lot out of her own pocket to keep her husband in that facility." An American Legion-accredited representative helped the woman with her paperwork, and she received a substantial award of retroactive benefits at the crisis center.

"The things that we saw in El Paso were life-changing for some of those veterans," Jones said. "There were people who came to our crisis center who were in jeopardy of losing their homes, who had not been receiving medical attention, who were at their wit’s end. And they walked out of that crisis center with a feeling that some hope was restored. They felt like somebody actually cared for them. In El Paso, we've seen some of the greatest needs among our veterans since we started these crisis centers."

Jones said the El Paso experience demonstrated what can be done when The American Legion, the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration, and other community partners get together in one physical location to provide timely and quality services and assistance to veterans dealing with long-delayed services "VA did an outstanding job,” she said. “Their employees were genuinely happy to be there, and they took a lot of time to make sure veterans were getting the help they needed.

One of VA's Mobile Veterans Centers was also on hand to provide assistance. "They were outside talking to some veterans even before they walked into the crisis center," Jones said. "They made sure the veterans were okay, and gave them counseling and other services if they needed them."

To date, about 1,800 veterans and family members have been assisted by The American Legion, VA and other groups at Veterans Crisis Command Centers. The next center is scheduled to open on July 15 in Fort Collins, Colo.