By: Steve B. Brooks
Tamara, who asked that her last name not be used, served in the U.S. Army from 1999-2000. During that time, she said she was a victim of military sexual trauma. Haunted by her experience, she’d been unable to work. The mother of young children, she’d been receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but her monthly income had dropped to $152 per month.
And recently, all three utilities had been cut off at her home, forcing her to turn to the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program. While meeting with a local Legion representative, she was told about the Legion’s Veterans Outreach Center (VOC) that was going to be conducted at the Washington DC Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
Tamara had filed for disability benefits with VA a few years ago but had been unsuccessful. But at the VOC, she was able to meet with American Legion service officer Ron Abrams, who reviewed her case and was confident he quickly could get her a substantial service connection – and accompanying monthly payment that could go retroactive to her initial claim. Abrams called the case a “slam dunk.”
“I haven’t breathed this easy in a long time,” Tamara said. “I feel like I can sleep tonight knowing tomorrow it should be a lot easier. This doesn’t just affect tomorrow. It affects my children, who I feel should be in parochial or private schools, but we were just too damn poor. And my daughter – there were so many days that we fought because we didn’t have the money. She was being bullied at school for looking so bad some days. Oh my God, she’s going to be OK. Georgetown University doesn’t seem hopeless anymore. I can finally put money into this college savings account that we’ve had for four years but were never able to put money into. Now I can open one for my son.”
Tamara said dealing with VA up to that point had been frustrating. “I felt like nobody believed me, nobody wanted to talk to me, nobody could find any information,” she said. “Things that I know happened in my service didn’t exist in my records. It was extremely difficult, a very long road. I am grateful for The American Legion. It took my electricity, water and gas to go out to get here.”
Tamara was one of 396 veterans who came to the VOC during the course of the three days it was open to check on pending VA disability claims, open new ones, enroll in VA health care and get free flu shots. Traffic into the center was steady the first two days; on Oct. 2, however, 196 veterans met with either Legion or VA reps during the 12 hours the center was open.
One of those veterans, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jose Figueroa, left the center extremely happy. Figueroa had knee surgery at the DC VAMC more than two years ago and wanted to get some additional medicine for his knee, as well as see a doctor about the progress of the surgery. He’d had trouble getting either prior to coming to the VOC.
“I was upset I couldn’t get anything over the phone,” he said. “You call the VA, they put you on hold. It’s just a long time. I came (to the VOC), got my medicine, I got a flu shot, and they told me that a doctor would be calling me to set up an appointment to see how my knee is doing.
“This is years that I’ve been trying to get this done. It’s hard to get things done with the VA. It takes months, years. And in one day, look what happened. It was great.”
Mary Humphrey, who served in the Army from 1974 to 1980 and developed a service-related injury to her knee, also had been frustrated dealing with VA since she filed a disability claim more than two years ago. Humphrey said that frustration had grown to the point where her next step was contacting U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and a lawyer.
“They take my claim and they pick it apart – anything to make me give up and quit,” she said. “(My claim) sat on a desk with the claim not even open. It was in there but was never submitted. I had to go down there to have them open the claim up for me.”
Humphrey got different results at the VOC. “I’m glad I came,” she said. “(Abrams) told me what had to be done, what steps needed to be taken. People don’t know that you’re going through this stuff and constantly being told no. I just want what’s due to me.”
Air Force veteran Bruce M. has been looking into possible VA benefits for more than a year. He was happy to have someone to talk face to face with about what might be available to him. “(Abrams) was willing to assist and extremely educational,” Bruce said. “This was one of the best conversations I’ve had in the past couple of years about potential benefits that might be available to me.”
A similar VOC is scheduled for Los Angeles later this month. Check back at www.legion.org for more details.