Veterans from North Carolina and other states took advantage of The American Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center (VCCC) in Charlotte, N.C., during the Legion's 96th annual national convention.
Over the course of three days, the center assisted 283 veterans and family members and helped award $300,885 in retroactive benefits – many of them for disabilities that were rated on the spot by Department of Veterans Affairs staff from the VA regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"This was another very successful collaboration between The American Legion and VA," said Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division. "Helping so many veterans get their back pay in benefits really makes a difference for them and their families.
"But our crisis center did more than that. We helped two homeless veterans get into a program that will help them obtain permanent housing and other resources to improve their lives. And we also helped two suicidal veterans who first received counseling from the local veterans center, then were escorted to the VA medical center for treatment and put under suicide watch."
A 20-year-old Air Force woman veteran was pushed in a wheelchair into the VCCC by her mother; the two heard about the crisis center and came to receive help. The veteran, though wheelchair-bound because of a service-connected hip-bone disintegration, had a zero-percent disability rating in her medical record. The veteran said the help she received at the VCCC was "awesome." She told her story to an American Legion accredited representative "who was overwhelmed by how much I'd been through since I'm only 20 years old. He was so willing to help me – everyone was willing to help me. I've never gotten this much help since I first started seeing the VA."
"I'm glad we came here," the woman's mother said. As the VA rater was looking at her daughter's records, "she said there was a discrepancy and that she couldn't understand how her daughter got a zero-percentage rating. After all, we're at the VA in Salisbury (N.C.) almost weekly – sometimes two or three times a week. But this place (Legion's VCCC) has made the future a little bit brighter for us. If people hear that the veterans crisis center is around, hurry up and get there – help is on the way."
The fact that she could speak with a VA claims rater face-to-face, the veteran said, was phenomenal. "I actually met with someone today, and she heard my story – not like sending a bunch of papers to some random person, and you don't know what's going on. And she said she could probably have something for me by tomorrow, which was mind-blowing."
Lakeisha Bracey, a pre-discharge representative for The American Legion in Winston-Salem, said most of the visitors at the crisis center were veterans, "but I did help one family member who wanted information about her husband because now he has dementia." The spouse got the help she needed and made an appointment to see a Legion service officer the following week.
One veteran, Bracey said, got a permanent and total disability rating while at the VCCC, which means he is no longer required to take VA medical exams to determine whether his rating needs to be changed. The man was so happy that he started calling fellow veterans on his cell phone, telling them to get down to the Legion's crisis center.
"He said if they needed a ride, he would come get them," Bracey said. "He got two more people himself. When he ran out of people to call in Charlotte, he called one in California and one in (Washington) D.C."
Another local veteran, Audrey McCaskill, is also spreading the word about the Legion's crisis centers. She had filed a disability claim and said the VCCC was "a great benefit for me. That was an excellent thing for the Legion and VA to do. It is more convenient that they are here than sending in your packet, which will take about four weeks."
McCaskill, who served 28 years in the Army, is not a member of The American Legion but she is going to join "because being a member of The American Legion is not only going to benefit me, but it will also benefit my family."
Crisis centers such as the one in Charlotte "tells the vets that you really care about them," said Jimmy Sowell, who works for Mecklenburg County Veterans Services in North Carolina. "It tells them that you're concerned with what their needs are, and that you're going to do everything that you can, within your power, to bring that to pass. If there's a VA benefit available, we're going to try to help you get that."