After several attempts, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Bill Ferguson finally was able to schedule an appointment to see his doctor at the Washington DC Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The appointment was made on April 24 – for June 14.
Ferguson – the senior vice commander for the Legion’s Department of Washington, D.C. – made it that long before seeing his doctor. But he’s worried about other veterans asked to wait that long to see a doctor. “If you were a suicidal veteran needing medication, what would you do?” Ferguson asked.
His comment was one of several made by D.C.-area veterans Monday night during an American Legion town hall meeting at the Washington D.C. VAMC (DC VAMC). Legion staff facilitated the meeting, which also was attended by several staff members from the DC VAMC and VA’s Capitol Health Care Network (VISN 5).
The meetings have coincided with American Legion Veterans Crisis Command Centers (VCCCs) set up throughout the country this summer and fall. American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Director Verna Jones said that more than 3,000 veterans have been helped at the VCCCs in 11 states, awarding nearly $900,000 in retroactive VA benefits compensation.
Starting this week in D.C., the centers will now be known as Veterans Outreach Centers (VOCs). “Veterans deserve quality treatment, and veterans deserve timely treatment, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do,” Jones said. “It’s important for us to advocate for those veterans on the highest level possible. The American Legion is committed to making sure that everybody gets the timely and quality service that they deserve.”
Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion’s VA&R Commission, said the town hall meetings and the VCCCs are part of a critical partnership between the Legion and VA to restore trust in the health-care system.
“Failure is not an option for anybody,” Bozella said. “The veterans of this country rely on the VA, the veterans of this country need the VA, and we want to do all that we can to ensure that.”
To do that, the Legion has been providing a venue for veterans to talk about their experiences with VA. At Monday’s town hall meeting, one veteran expressed frustration from “getting the run around. I'm in so much pain I'm about ready to jump out the window.” Another said that in a year and a half dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, he hasn’t been able to get any answers about possible disability compensation. Another said it took him two years just to get his medical records.
“I’m not getting proper treatment like I should,” added another veteran. “ We're not getting the respect we deserve for serving our country.”
But one veteran said that in using the DC VAMC for 10 years, he’s received very good service. He noted that with so many veterans to care for, long wait times are understandable.
Brian Hawkins, director of the DC VAMC, said he knows there are issues at the facility. “On an annual basis we have 1.2 million (patient) interactions,” he said. “Undoubtedly, something is going to happen where we need to get better and we need to improve. That’s why our partnership (with the Legion) is so very vital and very important: so that everyone has that great customer experience.”
Fernando Rivera – director of VA’s VISN 5, which includes health-care facilities in D.C., Maryland and West Virginia – urged veterans to sign up for My HealtheVet, VA’s online personal health record. But he said an electronic system isn’t a substitution for customer service.
“(An electronic system) doesn’t get around the fact we need to answer the phone,” Rivera said. “We’re coming up with new ways that veterans can access the information that they need when they need it: around their life on their terms. But we have to answer the phone, and we have to do a better job of answering the phone.
“It’s not an excuse that because we get 5,000 calls a day, some are just going to get missed. That’s not an excuse.”
Addressing Ferguson’s concerns regarding difficulty in getting mental health appointments, DC VAMC Chief of Staff Dr. Ross Fletcher said that wait times for mental health appointments “have been a little on the slow side,” but he expects those wait times to improve with increased staffing. “We expect those wait times to be as good as anywhere in the country in the very near future,” he said.
National Commander Mike Helm, who attended the meeting, said that it’s important to remember what VA has done not only for veterans, but in terms of medical research it’s conducted and then shared with the health-care community. “There have been people who have called for a voucher system to do away with the VA system,” he said. “Certainly we don’t believe that (and) the VA doesn’t believe that.”“
All of the veterans who spoke were urged to attend this week’s VOC. The center is open from noon-8 p.m. today at the DC VAMC in Conference Room 4-C. The center will be open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.
American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm met with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald on Sept. 29 at VA’s Central Office in Washington, D.C.
Helm and McDonald started their conversation by reminiscing about an Army's 82nd Airborne Division, a unit they both served with.
“Then we moved on to the issue of VA accountability, and the Secretary was certainly ready for us,” Helm said. “He had a thick bunch of papers that documented actions being taken against VA employees across the whole United States, and there were a lot of names on those papers.”
McDonald brought up a recent letter sent by Helm to President Obama, urging action to be taken against VA wrongdoers who falsified or manipulated appointment wait lists for VA medical care.
“McDonald explained the steps he has to take in order to follow the legal process before a VA employee can be fired,” Helm said. “I’m now hopeful that steps are being taken to address accountability concerns.”
The main topic, Helm said, was how The American Legion and VA can work together on improving veterans’ access to health care. He gave McDonald a summary of work done by the Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Centers, which have helped more than 3,000 veterans and family members since June.
The American Legion, Helm told McDonald, "is turning the corner from crisis mode in helping veterans get VA health care, to a larger outreach effort to the veterans community. We want to move forward and stand with the VA to get veterans the timely health care they need.
"We see the VA as essential in guaranteeing the quality of health care in this country that we know our veterans have earned. That's why it is so important for The American Legion to maintain this critical relationship with the department."
McDonald was especially interested in work The American Legion has done related to traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Legion created a permanent committee to research best practices for the treatment of those conditions and sponsored its first symposium on TBI and PTSD in Washington last spring. “He wants to see our reports and have a summit on TBI and PTSD,” Helm said.
Helm will be at The American Legion’s town hall meeting for veterans tonight 7 p.m. at the Washington DC VA Medical Center at 50 Irving St. NW. The event will give local veterans a chance to discuss the quality of health care they are receiving from VA. The Legion is also conducting its first Veterans Outreach Center at the medical center, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. Hours of operation for the center are noon to 8 p.m. on Sept. 30 and 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. Oct. 1-2.
The American Legion and Grammy Award-winning artists, The Oak Ridge Boys, are uniting to raise awareness and support for needs of U.S. military veterans, including better detection and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), help with the VA benefits process, and education and career opportunities for those who served our nation in uniform.
The American Legion is the country’s largest veterans service organization, with 2.4 million members who work every day on behalf of the men and women who have served our nation in uniform. The Oak Ridge Boys will participate in a national fundraising and awareness campaign to support the detection and treatment of mental health issues among veterans, 22 of whom are lost each day to suicide.
As one of country music’s longest-running groups, The Oak Ridge Boys’ legacy extends back to the end of World War II. The current group – which consists of lead singer Duane Allen, bass singer Richard Sterban, tenor Joe Bonsall and baritone William Lee Golden – recently celebrated more than 40 years performing together. In that time, The Oak Ridge Boys have produced more than 30 top 10 hit songs, 12 gold records, three platinum records, one double-platinum album and a double-platinum single, with combined sales totaling 41 million records sold. They maintain a vigorous touring schedule and released a live album in April, “Boys Night Out.”
Bonsall, a member of The Oak Ridge Boys since 1973, penned an inspirational biography about his veteran parents titled G.I. Joe and Lillie: Remembering a Life of Love and Loyalty. Joe’s father spent much of his life living with the wounds of war, both seen and unseen, as told in the book. A song by the same name was included in the Oaks’ album, Colors.“I know firsthand the ongoing care of our nation’s veterans is critical and how it impacts the entire family unit,” Bonsall said. “Uniting with The American Legion to raise awareness of those who are suffering, as my father did, is work we are proud to champion.”
The American Legion has been helping veterans cope with the invisible wounds of war since its formation in 1919, including extensive focus in the last four years to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have suffered what are known as the “signature wounds” of today’s war era: PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). VA estimates that upwards of 20 percent of veterans from the recent wars are confronting PTSD. The American Legion has met with top national authorities in mental health care, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and research institutions, as well as veterans and caregivers, to find solutions and treatments for those who suffer with TBI and PTSD.
“The American Legion welcomes the support of The Oak Ridge Boys in our efforts to help veterans and their families deal with the mental scars of battle,” American Legion National Commander Mike Helm said. “With the generous support of the Oaks, their fans and patriotic Americans, The American Legion will be able to help more veterans get the support and assistance they need.”
Ron Rivera, head coach of the NFL's Carolina Panthers, grew up military.
His father, Eugenio, spent 32 years in the Army with tours in Germany, France and twice in Vietnam. The elder Rivera, who is a Legionnaire, is a native Puerto Rican who was drafted into Vietnam as a U.S. Army engineer, deploying first into the Mekong Delta and again as an advisor to the Vietnamese army.
After Vietnam, Eugenio remained in the Army, eventually meeting his wife and raising a family of four boys. The Rivera's were stationed on bases in Panama, Washington, D.C., Germany, and Maryland, eventually settling in Monterey, Calif., where Ron would go onto to star as a linebacker at Seaside High School.
Through it all, Rivera learned work ethic and values that helped him excel as a football player and later as an NFL coach.
Ron and Eugenio were recently featured on USAA's Salute To Service platform, which elevates and recognizes military appreciation among NFL players, coaches, teams and fans. In "Growing up Military," Ron told the story of his military upbringing, and how it and the example his father set for him have helped him to tremendous success as a player and coach.
Watch the full episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiauRLrYP7c.
America’s 4 million disabled veterans will soon be honored with the dedication of the nation’s first memorial specifically designed for them.
After more than 15 years of planning, federal agency authorizations, congressional legislation and actual construction – as well as roughly $80 million - the 2.4-acre, triangular memorial has become a reality. Located in Washington, D.C., the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial will be officially dedicated with a public ceremony Oct. 5.
“We wanted to honor disabled veterans, first,” said Arthur H. Wilson, who co-founded and is now president of the Disabled Veterans' Life Memorial Foundation, Inc. “That’s how the idea was conceived. There are nearly 4 million and countless others who have already passed away. There will be more in the future as long as we have a military, as long as we have conflicts or skirmishes this country is involved in to protect our freedom.”
The American Legion has been active in supporting the memorial through donations and a resolution passed by the National Executive Committee in 2009. Gene Murphy, a 35-year member of American Legion Post 15 in Sioux Falls, S.D., has served on the foundation’s Board of Directors since 1998.
“We received donations from over a million donors – individuals, corporations, foundations and veterans service organizations,” said Murphy, the group’s treasurer. “Many of The American Legion members and posts, and Auxiliary members and units, donated to this memorial. Of course, the cost was around $80 million. We thank the American people and The American Legion organization and its members.”
Those who helped conceive and support the memorial envisioned its presence as a way to honor disabled veterans and educate others.
“We honor branches of the military. We honor the wars. We honor individual people,” Wilson said. “This memorial is unique in the sense that we honor all disabled veterans who are living and those who have gone before us and those who are yet to come. We honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country but we do not honor those who became disabled in service and lived with the disability for the rest of their life. It affects their life, their livelihood, their mental state, all of those things. It needs to be acknowledged by the American people, and I think that this will help.”
The memorial site, 150 Washington Ave., is adjacent to Bartholdi Park with a clear view of the Capitol. The site selection was no accident.
“We chose the site, just below the Capitol, so those working in Washington at the Capitol - the elected representatives and their staffs - would be reminded every day of the people who became disabled in service to their country,” Wilson said.
The Oct.5 dedication ceremony, which is free and open to the public, begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. Check-in and registration opens at 8:30 a.m. While there is no assigned general seating, registration is required and will be open until event capacity is reached. A maximum of four guests can be registered at a time.
Visit the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial's dedication page to register: http://www.avdlm.org/dedication.
American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm said U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS militants in Syria this week amplify our nation’s need to protect the Department of Defense (DoD) from drastic budget cuts and force reductions.
“The air-strike strategy is certainly an effective way to kill the enemy and destroy its war-fighting capabilities, at least in the short term,” Helm said. “But the large-scale use of high-tech missiles is expensive. Launching 1,000 Tomahawks is going to cost DoD about $1.5 billion, and the Pentagon has already said this week’s air strikes are only the beginning. Also, lasting security and protection against a resurgence of this army of terrorists can only be attained through complete military superiority, including ground forces.”
Costs of the air campaign in Syria are currently being covered by the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which has about $85 billion through fiscal 2014.
“If these air strikes continue for months or years – and with more budget cuts kicking in from sequestration – then funding this war is going to be a serious issue,” Helm said.
“The American Legion wants Congress to avoid any further cuts to the defense budget and to properly fund combat operations against ISIS, Khorasan and other militant Islamic groups, by air, sea and land. These threats must be annihilated, and now is not the time to shortchange DoD on funding necessary to conduct critical military operations in the ongoing war on terrorism.”
The first air strike by U.S. and Arab allies happened in the early hours of Sept. 23, Syria time. Two days later, Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby commented to CNN about fighting the Islamic militants. “I think we are in this for a matter of years. We are steeling ourselves for that period of time.”
For six years, World War II Navy veteran Robert Freeman and his wife, Rosalyn, have been frustrated with the Department of Veterans Affairs. It took more than four months for the Oregon couple to get replacement hearing aids and four more months for glasses for Robert, 90.
A heart condition that is going to require surgery will force the couple to travel to the Portland VA Medical Center – unless they want to pay $50,000 to have the operation locally in the private sector, since VA’s Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics (SORCC) in nearby White City, Ore., can’t do the procedure. Rosalyn said her husband’s cardiologist warned against making the trip to Portland, saying Robert likely wouldn’t survive the more than four-hour drive.
And for more than three straight months, Rosalyn said she and Robert went to SORCC every day to see Robert’s primary care doctor. Not once were they successful.
“He wouldn’t have been disabled if it wasn’t for VA,” Rosalyn said of her husband. “They were supposed to take care of him.”
An American Legion service officer at the Legion’s Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) in Medford, Ore., agreed. After meeting Rosalyn and Robert met with the service officer and a Veterans Benefits Administration rep, the couple was able to file, on the spot, VA Form 1151 – which allows VA to pay compensation for “injuries incurred or aggravated while receiving VA-sponsored medical treatment.”
Rosalyn also was encouraged by VA staff to apply for help through VA’s Caregiver Program after saying she previously had been told she needed to work part-time in order to qualify. The couple left the VCCC with their outlook changed.
"All this time I've been with the VA trying to get something done and nothing ever happened,” Robert said. “Suddenly we find out all these things can happen because you had the resource people here to do that. It was fabulous."
Robert and Rosalyn were among 87 veterans or veterans’ family members who came to the VCCC, Sept. 23-24, set up at Legion Post 15 in Medford. At the center, department and national American Legion service officers were on hand to guide veterans through the VA claims process. Veterans Benefits Administration and Veterans Health Administration staff were there to review claims and enroll patients into the VA health-care system. And VA medical personnel were there to give more than 60 flu shots during the two days.
Seeing the constant stream of people coming in and out of Post 15 drew a smile from Post Commander Tom Fitzgerald. So did the results achieved at the center.
“It’s been a little overwhelming for me talking to a number of people who have come out of (the center) because it was my hope that we could help them move forward – not really answer all their questions, but move forward – and almost every one of them have come forward and said, ‘Yes, I’ve moved forward,’” Fitzgerald said. “One of the guys came and told me, “I just finally got movement (on a claim) after six years. To me that’s absolutely awesome.”
That type of response was common among veterans who came to the center. Lewis Myer, a Vietnam War Air Force veteran, has to use a cane because of pain in his hip; shoulder pain keeps him from lifting an ice tray to eye level. He was given a 30-percent disability rating but feels it should be much higher.
“I played the macho dude when I got evaluated (by VA),” Myer said. “I overdid it. We were trained that way: Don’t be weak. I shot myself in the foot, and now we’re trying to correct it to get (the disability rating) where it should be.”
Myer felt he took a step in that direction by coming to the center. “They listened to what I had to say,” he said. “They rewrote what my conditions were. They’re trying to get me (rated for) PTSD. Because I did the same thing with the macho bull, I didn’t mention that things were keeping me up at night. I wasn’t informed enough to bring those things up. But between (rewriting) my conditions and adding the PTSD, they’ve given me hope. And hope is a magic word.
“It’s sad that we had this kind of a change so dramatically, with all the deaths and everything, but it’s certainly put us in a better position of getting what we feel is fair.”
Post 15 member Hugh Crawford, a Vietnam War Army veteran, recently found out that VA has reduced his service connection from 60 to 10 percent. Crawford said he has a heart condition due to exposure to Agent Orange and the condition isn’t going to go away or improve.
“I’ve had heart diseases, heart attacks and bypasses,” Crawford said. “My local cardiologist said once you’ve got that, you’ve always got that … and you’ll likely have another problem. I’m on high risk the rest of my life. I did OK on the treadmill test, and (VA says) ‘you’re all better now.’ They’re trying to take it away from me, and I’m trying to fight it.”
Crawford was glad he stopped by the center. “It was worth my time coming in,” he said. “I’m getting help from a state VA officer up in Portland, but two heads are better than one. I talked to a VA representative here, and he had some input. Maybe we can do some good.”
Past Department Commander Bob Huff, a member of Post 15, was at the center both days from opening to close. He said the VCCC was much-needed in the area. “We have a large VA presence here, but the VA here is a rehabilitation center,” he said. “It’s a mental health facility and it’s a detox facility, and they do a good job.
“On the side of VA, there’s a clinic, and it’s not even a CBOC (community-based outpatient clinic). And if you do need an appointment here, you can’t get it. It has to go through Roseburg, it has to go through Portland. So (this center) is good for the people. That seems to be the big issue: getting people into the VA system, because they’re very limited here. They’re not staffed for the population they have.”
Post 15 member Mike Whitfield, who was homeless seven years ago but now works for non-profit Rogue Valley Veterans and Community Outreach, also stopped at the VCCC several times. He said the center provides something that all veterans need: a voice.
“This is critical because (the veterans’) voices need to be heard on an individual level,” Whitfield said. “To be able to address each person, you’ve got to hear their whole spectrum of what’s going on. They’re so unique in their own individual cases, and they have to be heard individually.”
Not all those who stopped had health or claims questions. A week earlier, Josh Schatz was finishing up his final day after a six-year enlistment in the U.S. Army. Looking at the next stage of his life, the 29-year-old returned to his home state with the intention of going to college.
At the center, he was able to get information on the GI Bill – helping provide a bit of order in an otherwise chaotic period of his life. “I am in complete disarray,” Schatz said with a laugh. “No matter how organized I thought I was … I’m not.”
Though hosting the two-day center meant some long hours for Post 15 volunteers, it was worth it, Fitzgerald said. “It’s a great honor for us in two ways: No. 1 in that we can even be in the position to be offered the opportunity, but even more so, it’s the opportunity to be able to help the vets who so desperately need it,” he said.
During a Sept. 22 American Legion town hall meeting in White City, Ore., area veterans expressed frustration with access, customer service and other issues involving the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics (SORCC).
Their concerns are a strong reason while a town hall was needed in the area – and in other areas throughout the nation, said one Legionnaire in attendance.
“I would say that these are needed all over the place,” said Keegan Hodges, the Department of Oregon’s second vice commander and a former county veterans service officer. “In Oregon, whether it’s in small cities like Burns or bigger areas like Portland, you see a lot of the same issues. These town halls, and the ones that VA is holding, will help the problems. Not quickly, but they will help.”
The one-hour meeting featured veterans from White City, nearby Medford and other areas, staff from SORCC and staff member John Howard from U.S. Rep. Greg Walden’s office. The meeting was conducted in White City because the facility ranked in the top 10 in the nation for longest patient wait times, said Ed Lilley, assistant director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division.
Veteran Greg Culver of Eagle Point, who is 100-percent service connected, expressed frustration with access. He’s dealt with neurological disorders that have left him paralyzed from the waist down at times. He’s had trouble reaching his primary care doctor after meeting with specialists. He said he’s also been referred to fee-basis care.
“I’ve started getting calls from collections because (SORCC) wasn’t paying the bills,” Culver said. “Dental and optometry do an outstanding job (at SORCC). But as far as everything else, it’s a flat joke. Over the last four years I’ve spent close to $25,000 on my leg and my back because the facility will not pay the bills or do referrals.”
A World War II veteran, criticizing VA’s Priority Group classification system, questioned how any veteran – especially one from the “greatest generation” – could be classified as “non-priority.” The man’s wife said her husband needs heart surgery but hasn't been able to get appointment with his VA primary care doctor in more than a year. “We went to (SORCC) three and a half months, every single day, and said, ‘Where is our doctor,’” she said. “He needs to see her. She is the only one who can sign to get Portland (VA Medical Center) to take care of it. Guess what? She hasn’t done it today.
“How can VA do that to its patients? A private doctor would be kicked out. It just amazes me that they can sleep at night.”
Another Legionnaire asked where a veteran could turn if he or she felt they weren’t being heard by VA’s patient advocate. SORCC Director B. Don Burman urged the man to contact his office if he isn’t satisfied with the patient advocate’s response.
Debra Colestock, the wife of Vietnam veteran Harry Colestock, was critical of the way her husband and other veterans are treated at SORCC. “Please, in-service your people on professionalism,” Colestock said to VA staff at the meeting. “Remind them that they are here to service the veterans. We are not going into their facility to service them. I should not have to say, ‘Excuse me, my husband is hard of hearing’ and hear muttering under (staff’s) breath. Nor should I have them acting with a physical air about themselves that these (veterans) are disturbing them. It brings tears to my eyes, the things I’ve seen in that facility.”
Colestock did, however, praise some of the staff at the facility. “There are some really good people working there,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m talking about every employee.”
One veteran said that he’s received care at SORCC for 15 years. “I’ve received excellent health care,” he said. “But we’re in a broken world here. I’m not trying to defend them, but (VA) is understaffed, and there’s way too many patients for each caseload. But I’ve had outstanding health care since I’ve been here.”
The Legion will set up a Veterans Crisis Command Center in nearby Medford, Ore., at American Legion Post 15, 100 E. Jackson St. The center will be open from noon-8 p.m. today and from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday.