By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneApril 23, 2014
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- At the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library, in a room full of veterans -- many disabled from living through a combat zone -- and family members, the hurt and anger was palatable.
But representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs were there to help make some of those negative feelings go away.
During a Veterans Forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, veterans stood up one by one to ask a panel of VA representatives about their benefits, errors in their military records and VA policies that affect them on a daily basis. And one by one, Amy Hill for the VA's Montgomery Regional Benefit Office, Mike Beard of the Madison County VA office, Thomas Smith of the Birmingham VA Medical Center and Will Webb of Still Serving Veterans tried to answer their questions, clarify misunderstandings and offer more in-depth assistance from VA representatives standing by to help.
Hill told the veterans that she has a staff of 205 VA representatives who administer benefits and services for the 405,624 veterans who live in Alabama. Recently, she received funding for 23 more staff positions.
"We have no two-year-old claims in the office. But we do have about 1,000 one-year-old claims, and appeals are over two years old," she said.
By 2015, the VA's goal is to have no claims more than 125 days old.
"Our number one priority is, first, POWs, then Medal of Honor, then financial hardship and then homelessness. We're here to take care of those who need to be taken care of," Hill said. "A veteran with a financial hardship, terminal illness or homelessness is moved to the front of the line with their claims and appeals."
Veterans and their families in Alabama receive $71 million in monthly benefits. The vocational rehabilitation program in Alabama is the fourth highest rehabilitation services caseload in the nation.
More than 62,000 veterans live in North Alabama, with 15,000 being served by the community-based outpatient clinics in Huntsville and Madison, Smith said. Next year, those veterans will be receiving primary medical care and mental health services at the VA's new Huntsville Outpatient Clinic, Smith told the veterans.
But while the federal government works to provide services to veterans, private organizations like Still Serving Veterans serve as advocates for veterans who need additional help in obtaining benefits and services, and employment, Webb told them.
"Our nation is in your debt. We are committed to serving you and your families," he said.
Last year, SSV assisted 173 veterans, helping them obtain $9.6 million in new benefits, salaries and services "they wouldn't get without an advocate," he said.
The Madison VA office also advocates for veterans, Beard said.
The panel then heard from the veterans. Some asked about diagnosis procedures for post traumatic stress disorder, others wanted to upgrade their discharge status. Some wanted to ask about benefits related to Agent Orange exposure from Vietnam, and others wanted to modify their benefits to get as much funds as they are entitled to.
"We have 9,000 (modifying benefits) pending right now," Hill said. "We are way behind. If there is a financial hardship we will move you up in the process."
Another veteran said his wife received a letter in 2007 that said he had died. When he complained about the letter in three visits to the VA, he was told his Social Security number belongs to someone else. To complicate things further, although he retired in 1993, he has not been able to get disability for his prostate cancer. His list of problems with the VA was lengthy.
"I apologize to you," Hill said. "I don't want you to be in this situation. It should no way take this long to correct the error.
"We're here to serve. We don't want this to happen to you. I know my employees want to help. I know we have a lot of work to do and that we do make mistakes. But we should treat you with the respect and dignity you deserve. We want to serve you. Without your service, we wouldn't have a job."
Hill assured the veteran that a VA representative would take the time to address every one of his issues one at a time and they would be corrected.
Another veteran asked about how the VA is addressing the issue of homelessness.
Webb told the veterans that Eric Shinseki, a retired four-star general who is now the nation's secretary for veterans affairs, has provided $60 million a year to address veteran homelessness and to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Of that, Alabama will receive $7 million to combat its veteran homelessness issues. That money will be administered through a new office known as Priority Veteran, which has four locations in the state. There are about 1,500 homeless veterans in Alabama.
"And this community has a lot of good veteran organizations that all help with homelessness among veterans," Webb said.
"Fifty-seven percent of our veterans who are homeless are now housed. This has to be a community effort, a state effort, as a whole."