American Legion leads the charge to help veterans on hold with VA
Vietnam veteran Gene Stoesser, right, talks with Veterans Crisis Command Center volunteer Chuck Lewi while he waits for an appointment at American Legion Post 1 in Phoenix.
EL PASO, Texas
A counselor at the local Veterans Affairs office looked at Rebecca King, a victim of domestic violence and abuse who was seeking help for depression, and told her she would not be able to see a psychologist. She looked too nice and put together for someone depressed, King was told.
Like others who’ve failed to receive help at troubled VA offices, the Army veteran then gave up.
“I have a son, I’m his only support system, I have to keep it together” King recalled telling the VA office in El Paso, trying to explain why she didn’t look disheveled.
She is now among nearly 1,800 people who have turned to the American Legion, which has had town-hall meetings and opened temporary crisis centers in Phoenix, Fayetteville, N.C., and El Paso. People can gain access to health benefits, schedule doctor’s appointments, enroll in the VA and even get back pay.
The centers come in the wake of the VA scandal that brought to light long wait times and false record-keeping among other things, and are being established in towns where the VA audit showed wait times were longer. Between now and October, crisis centers will come to Fort Collins, Colo.; Saint Louis and Baltimore,. They also plan to visit Clarksburg, W.Va.; White City, Ore. and Harlingen, Texas.
Jessica Jacobsen, deputy director of the VA’s regional public affairs office in Dallas, said the VA will use community partners, such as the American Legion, to help “accelerate access and get veterans off wait lists and into clinics.”
“This is an example of this type of partnership and how it is successful,” Jacobsen said, noting the VA is helping the Legion with the crisis centers, providing them with counselors, nurses, schedulers and benefits rates.
“This is not extra, this is what is supposed to be happening,” she said.
On the first day the Legion’s crisis center team arrives in a town, they typically hold a town-hall meeting, where they take questions from veterans — sometimes, the head of the local VA is there to answer as well. In the days following, veterans come to the Legion post and talk to counselors, who assess the best way to tackle a given problem, be it benefits, retroactive payment, scheduling a doctor’s appointment or enrolling a veteran in the VA’s system for the first time.
During the center’s three days in El Paso, 74 veterans were told they are eligible to more than $461,000 in retroactive payments for uncollected benefits, American Legion Post 58 commander Joe Ontiveros said.
King divorced her husband, who was also in the military, after years of abuse and moved back to El Paso in 2012. She got by until January, when she learned her ex-husband wanted to take their son for the summer.