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Veterans Service Organizations: Supporting a Changing, Growing Population of those who Served

VA, Vietnam and Gulf War era veterans have now reached a rough equilibrium – about one-third of the total each – while World War II and Korean War numbers are in sharp decline, with both groups disappearing between 2025 and 2045.

Those who served during the Vietnam era replaced World War II veterans as the largest group of veterans in the 1990s, but are now in decline, as those who have fought in the only war longer than Vietnam continue to leave the military.

By 2040, the VA estimates those who served between the first Gulf War (1991) and the ongoing conflict in Southwest Asia (2001-2014) will comprise more than 55 percent of the veteran population (barring another major war in the interim). As with today’s survivors of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, by then they will be reaching an age where healthcare demands will increase significantly.

The population is changing in other ways as well. Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) have had the lowest mortality rates of any war in human history due to advanced medical care far forward that has saved wounded who would have died in previous conflicts. But combined with blast injuries and amputations, that also has led to an increased number of veterans with disabilities.

This war also has seen more military women in the theaters of conflict, raising the number of female veterans, including those among the disabled.

As budget cuts and sequestration force even greater reductions in force than already had been intended for the post-war military, many service members will be joining the veteran population sooner than they had intended. All that also has led to a major increase in the families and survivors of those who served and demand for VA programs on their behalf.

While the VA has ultimate responsibility for veteran healthcare and other assistance, independent Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) have evolved through the decades to help veterans deal with government paperwork and to represent their needs – with the VA, DoD, Congress and the American people.

Kevin Secor, the VA’s liaison to the VSOs, reports working with more than 300 such groups, including Military Service Organizations (MSOs) providing similar assistance to active duty, National Guard and Reserve service members.

“The VSOs are very active, and their relationship with the VA is actually very good. We don’t always agree, but the open dialogue we have is essential. They are advocates, and if they feel something is wrong, they will say so – but then we will work together to resolve any issues to provide the very best services we can to veterans, their families and survivors,” he said.

“They are a great asset, a stakeholder, and our partners, and provide a lot of services that coincide with us. For example, there are many VSOs that provide claim services, representing veterans to us for claims submission, to gain access to the VA healthcare and benefits system. In fact, they currently are helping us with a fully developed claims program, assisting us in reducing the backlog,” Secor said.

The VSOs have also deployed hundreds of national service officers (NSOs), who undergo specialized training before volunteering in VA facilities.

“When a veteran comes in, VSO volunteers greet them, provide information, help with some of our non-essential paperwork, distribute reading materials to patients, even help with voter registration,” Secor added. “The VSOs work closely with the VA, but also with DoD.

“The MSOs, such as the Military Officers Association or Air Force League, work closely with DoD, but also with the VA. Some of those MSOs, such as the Marine Corps League, also do claims services for their veterans, although their primary focus is on DoD. Some of them also volunteer at our medical centers.”

All VSOs (and MSOs) are funded solely by private donations and member dues. Some have congressional charters, but that does not mean they receive any government funding – other than free office space (just the room) for their NSOs at VA facilities.

VA and VSO representatives meet at least monthly in Washington, D.C., depending on the requirements of current topics. Such meetings also occur on a regular basis in the field, especially between local VSOs and VA hospital directors. Given all they do, Secor sees the VSOs as a valued and essential part of the nation’s continued support for its veterans.

“It is up to the medical centers and the purpose the organization is looking for office space. If doing claims processing, they must be accredited and recognized by the VA. There are more than 50 of those. It is up to each facility director to determine who gets office space – and more than one [VSO or MSO] may work from the same medical center office,” he said.

“A VSO does not need to have been chartered by Congress to have VA accreditation. Congress recognizes certain organizations to enable them to testify on behalf of veterans, but over the years has allowed any VSO to testify. But a congressional charter also requires the organization to file regular reports with Congress.”

VA and VSO representatives meet at least monthly in Washington, D.C., depending on the requirements of current topics. Such meetings also occur on a regular basis in the field, especially between local VSOs and VA hospital directors. Given all they do, Secor sees the VSOs as a valued and essential part of the nation’s continued support for its veterans.

“If there were no VSOs, it would have an impact on the VA. For example, DAV [Disabled American Veterans] is a great partner, and without their help it would be very difficult for us to have a rehab sports program for veterans. Others assist with other rehabilitation programs,” he said. “They also assist in the local communities by ensuring local facilities have the services they need.

“They are very active on the Hill, helping us with legislation to provide better services. They also help us get the word out to their memberships about the benefits and services the VA offers, which is very important. They make it known on the Hill what is truly needed to take care of our veterans, families and survivors.”

Getting the word out to veterans about what the VA can do for them is more than explaining programs. The VSOs also help overcome misunderstandings and help counter the reluctance of many veterans of all ages to accept government aid once they are out of uniform.

“There are some who believe others need help more than they do, so they don’t apply for medical services or other benefits. That was true with World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and is true with OIF/OEF. But today, when a service member is leaving active duty, the VA has trained counselors who discuss the basics available for them. We also do that with the Reserves and Guard. In fact, when they leave the service, there soon will be a requirement that they enroll in e-benefits,” Secor explained.

“We have PSAs [public service announcements] in some areas to see how well our information is getting out, working closely with VSOs, using the Internet and social media. Social media was an unknown 15 years ago, but now it is very important to making sure the services and benefits we offer are known to and available to our veterans. And the VA and VSOs have done a great job in helping people know that.”

A brief overview of some of the best-known VSOs, in order of founding, offers a good overview of the diversity, intent and programs of the hundreds of veterans organizations working with – and for – the nation’s millions of former warfighters. The specific goals and programs of each also provide a look at the needs of the nation’s diverse community of veterans.

 

Veterans of Foreign Wars

Founded in 1899, the VFW has 2 million current members, making it the oldest and second largest VSO. In 2012, the VFW reported its nationwide network of more than 1200 VA-accredited service representatives helped 125,000 veterans receive more than $3.7 billion in compensation and pensions from the federal government, regardless of VFW membership.

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki

Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars 114th National Convention in Louisville. Photo courtesy of the Veterans of Foreign Wars

In furtherance of their motto – “Honor the dead by helping the living” – the VFW devotes more than 11 million volunteer hours annually at some 1,400 VA facilities, funds $4.6 million in grants to help almost 3,500 military families through emergency financial situations and “continues to lead the fight to ensure a nation that creates veterans takes care of them when they return home”.

As a summation of its intent and programs, the VFW’s August 2013 brochure quotes the nation’s Revolutionary War commanding general and first President, George Washington: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”

In testimony before a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on Sept. 11, 2013, Gerald T. Manar, VFW deputy director for national veterans service, strongly criticized the current VA claims processing procedure. By shifting the burden of preparing much of the evidence necessary to adjudicate a claim from the VA to veterans, he charged, “traditional measures of claims processing timeliness – average days pending, average days to complete – are reduced. This allows VA to assert that it is processing claims more quickly.”

Even worse, some records the VA now requires veterans to provide are difficult, if not impossible, for private citizens to acquire, he argued – including military records for National Guard and Reserve personnel who were activated for service in Southwest Asia.

Overall, the VFW has taken a far broader view than most VSOs of its responsibilities, not only to veterans, but to the entire military establishment.

On Sept. 20, for example, VFW National Commander William A. Thien and the organization’s national legislative committee sent an urgent letter to all members of Congress concerning sequestration and the lack of a formal DoD budget.

“We have the world’s best military, but they can’t fight Capitol Hill, which I said was one of the primary reasons the VFW exists,” he said. “We are their voice in Congress and we will continue to let legislators know that their failure to pass a budget is having a perilous effect on a military that, despite appearances, is very worried about its ability to respond to a new contingency tasking elsewhere in our troubled world.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...