VA employee Jeff Wright works with Eddie King of Monongah, W.Va. inside American Legion Post 31 in Shinnston, W.Va., during the Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center. (Photo by Steph Chambers)

'I appreciate the Legion doing this'

Wyatt, W.Va., resident James Carpenter spent three years in the Army and three in the Army Reserve in the 1960s, working as a wheeled and track vehicle mechanic.

After his service, Carpenter developed lung problems despite never smoking, and he recently was informed by his private physician that he has asbestos in both of his lungs.

Carpenter believed his condition came from being exposed to asbestos while working on Army vehicles, so he went to the Louis A. Johnson Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va., for a second opinion.

“I don’t get excited, but I wanted to know,” Carpenter said. “We did the CT scan, and the (VA doctor) said, ‘Do you know that you have asbestos in both lungs?’ I said, ‘Yes I do, doctor.’ He said, ‘Well, you definitely got it. It’s affecting you. But here’s the thing – you’ve been out of the military for quite awhile. You can file a claim, but I doubt you get anything.’”

Carpenter didn’t follow through on the VA claims process – until he found out about the Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC), Aug. 5-6, in the small town (pop. 2,200) of Shinnston, W.Va. At the center, Carpenter was able to get the claims process started by Zach Hearn, the Legion’s deputy director for benefits in its Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division.

“I served, as did a lot of my family, and I think that wherever you served, I think you were doing your duty, and you deserve to get the care you’ve earned,” Carpenter said. “I didn’t know about this center, but I’m glad I found out. I appreciate the Legion doing this.”

Carpenter was one of 82 veterans who came to American Legion Post 31 to take advantage of the services offered. Staff from the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration was on hand to help with claims processing and health-care enrollment and scheduling. Enrollment in My HealtheVet also was available. In two days, $17,000 in VA benefits was awarded on the spot to veterans.

“The American Legion has taken a standpoint of ensuring all veterans know about their benefits – health, VBA, mental health services,” said Wesley Walls, public affairs officer for the Louis A. Johnson VAMC. “I think it’s a great opportunity. The hours for a good opportunity … for working veterans who have to come after hours. It’s great that The American Legion has opened up the doors in Shinnston to allow for basically total access to the VA.

“If some of the area veterans service organizations would continue to reach out to (other VA facilities) and work with us to do these outreach events, I think we can reach more veterans.”

Many veterans came into the center wanting to simply get an update on the status of their claim. Roy Butcher, a Vietnam War Navy veteran, has a claim on appeal and didn’t know at what stage his appeal currently sat. “I got information I really didn’t know,” Butcher said. “I got an idea where my appeal was and the timeline. I didn’t know where it was, so it was a good thing (to come to the center).”

Another veteran, Ronald Stuttler, said he felt “encouraged” after coming into the center to see about getting VA help for his loss of hearing. “I feel it’s service-connected,” he said. “I got some good information and am going to re-file and see what happens.”

One veteran said that simply meeting face to face with someone from VA was a good next step in his claims process. Another said, “I’ve learned more in the last hour than I did in the past five years,” after talking to a VA Benefits employee.

And then there was the case of Korean War Army veteran Richard M., who had received a notice that his VA disability rating was being increased. Richard, who badly injured his right knee while in the military – resulting in his taking an early retirement from his job in the coal industry – wanted to check on both the status and the amount of the rating increase.

Richard considered it a pretty good day. Not only did he find out that his monthly VA disability payment was going up nearly $800, but that he was entitled to approximately $25,000 in retroactive payments – a fact he didn’t know until coming to Post 31. And Legion staffer Lakeisha Bracey also got paperwork pushed through that will repay Richard for any prescription co-pays he’s made since February of 2012.

“That means when it comes to health care I’ve got some money to pay for it now,” said Richard, who also gets treatment for depression at the VA. “I didn’t expect this. I’m pretty happy. I’ll be happier when I leave, too. I’m going to go have a couple of drinks.”