Verna Jones (right), director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, receives feedback from an area veteran at the Legion's townhall meeting in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Lucas Carter)

Veterans air concerns about VA benefits process

Lorenzo Neal of Rock Hill, S.C., appealed his Department of Veterans Affairs benefits claim decision in 2010. Monday night at an American Legion veterans town hall meeting in Charlotte, N.C., Neal gave an update on that appeal.

“In this remand it states, ‘this case must be afforded expedient treatment,’” Neal said, reading the notice he got from the Veterans Benefits Administration. “This appeal was remanded in November 2010. The (VA) regional office has yet to make a decision in my case. Now is that expedient?”

Neal was one of a handful of veterans who spoke up at the town hall meeting, which took place in conjunction with the Legion’s 96th Annual National Convention in Charlotte. The purpose of the meeting was to get a glimpse of area veterans’ experiences in dealing with VA’s health-care and benefits systems.

“We want VA to succeed,” said Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division and its System Worth Saving Task Force. “Nobody wins if VA fails, and we’re here to work in partnership for VA to succeed, to serve veterans at the highest level of integrity possible.”

Bill Stewart, a veteran from Little River, S.C., said he wanted to see a shift in how veterans our viewed. “They need to have everyone in Washington, D.C., respect them,” he said. “That has been lost somewhere in the files of what’s been going on at this time. Restore the respect for those who have served. They’re not deserving of what’s been going on.”

One veteran said it was criminal that Neal has waited four years for a decision on his appeal. Another veteran said he wouldn’t take his dog to the medical center in Salisbury, N.C., and suggested scrapping the entire VA health-care system in favor of a vouchering program.

Rory Riley, a staff member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, attended the meeting and praised the Legion for its efforts this summer in pushing for VA reform and reaching out to veterans through its six previous Veterans Crisis Command Centers (VCCCs) it’s conducted throughout the country.

“I can tell you (the VCCCs) are very effective,” she said. “They’re also very effective for the committee. I’m here mostly to listen, take notes to hear your stories so I can bring those back to Congress, let people know what’s happening on the ground and … how we can respond to that.”

The Legion will have a VCCC set up today starting at noon and running through Thursday night. The center will be located in the Charlotte Convention Center in Rooms 204 and 205, Ballroom Level. Operating hours for the crisis center are noon to 8 p.m. today, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

Members of the Legion’s national staff, along with local Legionnaires, staff from VA facilities and volunteers from other organizations, will be on hand at the VCCC 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.

“VA is broken, and it’s up to us to make sure that we help fix it,” said Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division. “There’s an adage that says it takes a whole village. We’re the village. That’s VA, that’s The American Legion, that’s other veterans organizations. It’s all community partners – and you, the veteran, taking responsibility to help make your VA exactly what you need it to be.”

Legionnaire George Cade of Fayetteville, N.C., saw firsthand the effect of one of the Legion’s VCCCs when one was conducted in his city. Nearly 800 veterans came to the center. One was awarded a disability rating approval on the spot. “The next day he had $11,000 in his account,” Cade said. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to us for them to travel with these veterans crisis centers.”