For veterans, military retirees, and active-duty service members separating from service, applying for and receiving benefits can be an ordeal. In fact, it’s often difficult to merely keep aware of the changes in U.S. legislation – such as the newest version of the GI Bill, passed in 2008 – that have the potential to help them and their families.
For the last 90 years, one of the main allies for veterans in this cause has been Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a 1.2 million-member non-profit organization dedicated to building better lives for America’s disabled veterans and their families. Every year, DAV represents more than 200,000 veterans and their dependents with claims for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD).
DAV’s largest program in service of this mission is its National Service Program. In 110 offices throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, DAV employs about 260 national service officers (NSOs) and 31 transition service officers (TSOs), who represent veterans and their families with claims for benefits from the VA, DoD, and other government agencies. “Our national service officers,” says Chad Moos, head of DAV’s transition services, “are assigned to all of the VA regional offices across the United States to provide assistance and service free of charge to veterans seeking it. And with the transition program, we’ve positioned ourselves in the largest military installations – the Fort Braggs, the Fort Bennings – to make sure we’re at the biggest bases to touch the most discharging service members.”
DAV’s services, Moos emphasizes, are free of charge – “we don’t ask for individual contributions or pay-as-you-go arrangements” – and available to all veterans; they are not limited to DAV members, or even to disabled vets. In fact, they are not strictly limited to veterans, but extend to their families and dependents. “If there is a widow or a widower who was married to a veteran killed on active duty,” says Moos, “or even dependent children who are left behind, we can assist them with education benefits or dependency indemnity compensation. So we’ll help, for the most part, anybody who is entitled to benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Every NSO and TSO who works with DAV, Moos points out, has experience in these matters: “They all have to be eligible for membership within DAV to be employed as a national service officer or a TSO,” he says. “As a matter of fact, all of our professional staff are service-connected disabled veterans from a period of war.” They are also highly trained professionals, instructed, and drilled repeatedly to keep them up to date on changes to the laws and regulations affecting veterans’ benefits. NSOs undergo pre-testing, instruction in 32 distinct training modules, and post-testing in the only veterans services training program to be certified for college credit by the American Council on Education. Additionally, each officer undergoes a 16-month on-the-job training program.
Typically, DAV’s association with a veteran begins when he or she is still on active duty, when a TSO appears at a class or seminar that is part of the federal government’s Transition Assistance or Disabled Transition Assistance Programs (TAP/DTAP) and introduces the organization and its services. For many, finding someone willing to help them through the process is a relief.
“Probably the most difficult process to navigate,” says Moos, “is the disability compensation process. Seeing as how we’re in a time of war, a lot of young men and women are coming back with either minor injuries or, some of them, very, very significant injuries. … For our TSOs and NSOs, it’s just another day at the office because we’ve seen it and done it before. The organization uses other venues as part of its outreach: hosting its own information seminars, broadcasting its services at major league baseball games and air shows, and even sending out 10 Mobile Service Offices – offices on wheels that travel nearly 100,000 miles annually to reach veterans in hundreds of cities and towns. The MSO program, in the midst of a resurgence fueled by a generous donation from the Harley-Davidson Foundation, is an idea that traces its roots back to the post-Vietnam era. They had a field service unit, or FSU,” says Moos, “which is basically the same concept of a mobile office – allowing us to go to small communities and provide outreach and claims assistance to veterans in their own communities when they don’t have access to one of our NSO or TSO offices.”
Once a military member begins a relationship with a DAV professional, he or she can prepare for prompt receipt of whatever benefits are due. Under the VA’s two early filing programs, Benefits Delivery at Discharge and Quick Start, service members can submit an application for service-connected compensation while still on active duty – up to six months prior to the date of discharge.
Suey Lee, a transition services officer with DAV’s office at Marine Corps Air Base Miramar, in Southern California – a large office that handles servicemen and women from 28 different military bases, representing all four military branches – explains that assistance ranges from lectures given by DAV personnel at different military installations, to examinations of individual medical records to identify issues that could factor into benefit claims, to providing the claim forms and helping them fill them out. “They’ll have everything done before leaving the service,” Lee says. “Then once they get out of the service, they mail back a DD 214 form, proving they are a veteran, and they will actually get a disability rating back quickly – the quickest I’ve had now is 23 days, but on average, it takes about 120 to 180 days. The normal veteran, getting out of the service and then filing, will now wait approximately nine to 14 months for a rating.”
Today’s warfighters are drawn to such results – Lee estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the people separating from the military today make use of DAV’s program. A disability rating’s importance, he cautions, is not limited to those seeking disability retirements. “When we say ‘disability,’ we’re not talking just veterans with major disabilities,” Lee says. “We’re talking about any items that are service-connectable. The VA has standards for what they will rate, and they could be things like broken bones, past surgeries, scars, or just simple medical conditions. We help file for those benefits so that the veterans can get a rating and take advantage of all the different benefits that are available for them.”
Life On the Other Side
As Moos points out, most service members are in “transition mode” for only about a couple of weeks, which explains why there are so many fewer TSOs than NSOs. “A lot of what gets done as far as representation on their claim is done after the fact,” he said. “Once they’ve returned home and get in touch with one of our national service offices, the TSO introduces who we are and what we do, assists them in filing an initial claim, and then sort of passes them on to the NSO to finish the job.” Understandably, the job becomes more complex once a service member is officially a veteran.
NSOs act as attorneys-in-fact, helping veterans and their families file claims for the full range of benefits: disability compensation, pensions, educational benefits, vocational rehabilitation and employment, home loan guaranty, life insurance, death benefits, health care, and more. “When the bigger National Service Program comes into play,” Moos says, “national service officers assist with the whole gamut of VA benefits … there is a litany of different benefits – and when you start talking about the state benefits, that’s an even longer list. The NSO takes it from there and walks them through the rest of the process.”
Paul Varela, the supervising NSO for DAV’s Los Angeles office, oversees a staff of seven NSOs who, together, interviewed more than 3,600 military members or veterans in fiscal year 2009. “We’ll screen their records and let them know what they’re eligible for or could be eligible for,” Varela says. “A lot of times we’ll have people come in and we’ll just start talking with them, and they’ll start telling us about their disabilities, and we probe a little deeper and come to find out they are entitled to benefits. We’ll tell a service member: ‘Hey, you should file a claim for that.’”
While some veterans may seek the assistance of legal professionals, Varela says, it’s generally not the optimal first step in filing a claim, or even in arguing against an evaluation board’s rating. For one thing, it’s expensive; for another, no attorney works as closely with the VA as Disabled American Veterans – whose national service offices are literally located at each of the VA’s regional headquarters. “There is a benefit to working within the regional office,” Varela says, “because you understand how the VA operates, what they’re looking for exactly. Somebody outside of that loop, an attorney who has an office outside the community, and who doesn’t have the hands-on experience with the VA, can be put at a disadvantage.”
Disability ratings have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, as the increased rate of wartime discharges has upped the number of disability ratings assigned – and in many cases, veterans believe their ratings are set too low for them to receive the level of benefits to which they’re entitled.
“We’re mainly concerned with making sure they get the appropriate evaluation,” Moos says, “whether it be from the service department or from the VA. But where those discharge review boards are – say, at Walter Reed or Brooke [Army Medical Center] down in Texas – we have NSOs that go before those boards with soldiers and represent them there as well.”
DAV also provides resources for veterans to pursue their disputed claims further, Varela says. “We refer people to legal counsel when we have exhausted all of our remedies at the local level within the VA, when veterans may want to pursue their issues at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Field service officers like myself, we’re not able to represent those cases. There are certain individuals, and actually some law firms, that have come to work with us in a pro bono capacity that will screen those decisions to see if maybe there is some more recourse at the court level.”
The results of DAV’s National Service Program are staggering: in the 2008 calendar year, the organization represented nearly a quarter of a million veterans and their families, obtaining nearly $3.4 billion in new and retroactive benefits.
As successful as they’ve been, Moos would like to see DAV reach even more veterans. “We want them to understand that all our NSOs and TSOs are service-connected disabled veterans,” he says. “They have all navigated this process before. I think that’s one of the best testaments to what we do and why we do it, free of charge: We were formed by disabled veterans who just wanted to make sure that those who came behind them didn’t have the same kind of hardships they had to endure.”
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