Oliver Walker, left, speaks with Cyndi Ryan of American Red Cross at The American Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center in Baltimore. (Photo by Noel St. John)

Legion crisis center helps Baltimore vets

Last week in Baltimore, The American Legion’s Veterans Command Crisis Center (VCCC) assisted 143 veterans and family members who needed help with Department of Veterans Affairs medical appointments, disability claims, health-care enrollment and other issues.

American Legion national staff, Legion volunteers, VA staff, American Red Cross volunteers and others were on hand July 29-Aug. 1 to offer assistance. Over the four-day period, more than 50 VA staff members from Baltimore and other locations provided services at the center.

The VCCC was initially hosted by American Legion Post 109 in Arbutus, Md., but was moved to the VA Loch Raven Outpatient Center due to easy access to public transportation. “Post 109 was a gracious host, had a lot of room and plenty of parking space, but there was no access to public transportation,” said Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division in Washington. “Many of our Baltimore veterans rely on the city’s buses, and there is a bus stop right in front of Loch Raven.”

James Woods, one of three American Legion service officers at the crisis center, said many of the veterans sought help in filing benefits claims. “We helped them to write their claims, which is huge because if a veteran doesn’t write a claim correctly, it can be denied at the VA regional office.”

Key words, Woods said, help the VA to better understand the nature of a claim. “Just helping veterans describe their issue correctly is very important,” he said. For example, Woods said veterans may not know the best way to explain how a secondary medical condition is related to a pre-existing service-connected injury or illness.

Woods said many veterans also wanted updates on the status of claims already submitted. “We don’t have access to VA data, so it was very convenient to take them across the room to the VA staff, who were more than willing to provide those updates,” he said.

Ernest Daniels, an Army veteran, showed up at the VCCC to upgrade one disability claim and contest VA’s denial of another. He spoke with American Legion and VA staff, “and they were very helpful," Daniels said. "They guided me in the right direction and answered some questions that I had. I’m happier now than when I first came in.”

The Legion service officers also helped Daniels write a letter to serve as a document for his upgrade request to VA.

A veteran of the Army Medical Service Corps, Roseanne Radavich left the service in June and still has "these huge stacks of medical records that I have to figure out what to do with, and they’re very intimidating.” She came down to the VCC for help.

Radavich, who served a year in Iraq, said her Army medical records have been sitting on her kitchen table, untouched, “because I just couldn’t start on them yet. They were always on my list of ‘things to do,’ but I never did get to them. So for me, this is a huge help.”

VA staff member Mary Riley said, “These crisis centers are just amazing. The way The American Legion has pulled them together and coordinated everything, promoted it, made it so seamless for us just to step in and say, ‘Yeah, we can support it,’ and get all the people who matter in the room at one time to provide the service – it’s just great.”

The Legion's veterans crisis centers, such as the one in Baltimore, “shows that somebody is listening to (veterans)," Riley said. "It’s important that people are listening and hearing, and then the other side is that people are acting. The American Legion is acting, and we are partnering with them to assist and take care of any problems that might be out there."

VA staff at the VCCC helped visitors with health-care issues and benefits claims. One of VA’s mobile veterans centers was also parked outside, helping veterans and family members who needed counseling.

Jones said a major complaint among veterans who came to the crisis center was the amount of time it took to get VA medical appointments, and the cancellation of those appointments by the hospital. She also said quite a few veterans came through “who never filed benefits claims before. So they needed to start from the beginning with one of our Legion service officers, and then go to the VA staff to get the claim into the system and get it processed.”

The collaboration between The American Legion, the VA, and other veterans-community providers “has been great,” Jones said. “The (American) Red Cross has been outstanding. This is our sixth crisis center and the Red Cross has been at every one. Here in Baltimore, they’ve helped transport veterans between the Loch Raven center and the VA hospital on Greene Street, and promoted the crisis center.”

The American Red Cross has already alerted its volunteers in the Clarksburg, W.Va., area where the next Legion VCCC will be held Aug. 5-6. "They’ve been great partners with us since we’ve started these crisis centers," Jones said.

Jones thanked the VA for providing space and staff at the Loch Raven facility, especially the director of the Baltimore VA medical center and the director of Veterans Integrated Service Network 5. “They really have been accommodating and we’re grateful for that," she said. "It’s been a great effort, all of us working together, and the number of veterans we’ve been able to help. It’s just a great example of what happens when we all get together and do what needs to be done.”

The American Legion's town hall meeting in West Virginia will be at 7 p.m. on Aug. 4 at American Legion Post 31 on 76 Bridge St. in Shinnston, W.Va. The meeting is open to the general public, and local veterans are encouraged to attend, especially those affected by wait-time delays.

The Legion will also set up a Veterans Crisis Command Center at Post 31 on Aug. 5-6. Members of the Legion’s national staff, along with local Legionnaires, staff from VA facilities and volunteers from other organizations will be on hand to assist veterans and their families. Services provided will include assistance in filing for VA appointment scheduling, grief counseling, benefits claims, and help with enrollment in VA health care.

Operating hours for the crisis center are noon to 8 p.m. on Aug. 5 and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Aug. 6.