A Better Environment for Veterans

Navy veteran Rik Villarreal greets American Legion official Verna Jones at the American Legion in El Paso, Texas. The Legion is hosting crisis centers in different cities to help vets get appointments and benefits from the VA. Juan Carlos Llorca/AP

In reaction to the scandal that surfaced within the Department of Veterans Affairs last spring, The American Legion began setting up Veterans Crisis Command Centers (VCCCs) in cities and towns across the nation. Putting Legion staff side by side with VA staff, the centers allowed veterans a chance to enroll in the VA health-care system, file benefits claims and check on the status of pending claims.

At the 11 VCCCs, more than 3,000 veterans were helped, and nearly $900,000 was secured in retroactive VA benefits compensation. But now the Legion has transitioned from VCCCs to Veteran Outreach Centers. The first is finishing up today in Washington, D.C., while a second will take place later this month in Los Angeles.

Ralph Bozella, chairman of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, spoke with The American Legion Media & Communications Division about the success of the VCCCs and the need to transition from "crisis" to "outreach."

The American Legion: Are you surprised by the impact that the Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Centers have had?

Ralph Bozella: It far exceeded my expectations. I knew we were going to help veterans. I knew we were going to help a large number of veterans because we were in major cities, as well as in rural areas. But the number that we reached and the benefits, in terms of dollars we were able to get back to veterans and their families, far exceeded my expectation.

TAL: Why do you think that the VCCC settings have been so effective in getting help for veterans?

RB: One of the things that I've learned through our work with the (VCCCs) and now the Veterans Outreach Center is that we create a more helpful environment for veterans when VA is working in partnership, hand in hand, with The American Legion to serve those veterans.

TAL: Why is that?

RB: It's a transparency issue. When a veteran (goes to see) a Veterans Benefits Administration representative and that door shuts, the VBA representative is in charge of that environment. That's an empowerment situation. When a veteran comes (to a VCCC or VOC), that VBA representative is working in an open environment with people who know the business all around them. They are not so much empowered over that veteran. They are empowered to help that veteran. What I've seen here, essentially, is showing the VA … "This is how you should work with your veterans."

TAL: The Department of Veterans Affairs has started conducting town hall meetings across the country to get feedback from the customers who use it. Do you think the Legion town halls that occurred in tandem with the VCCCs influenced VA's decision to conduct its town halls?

RB: The American Legion absolutely had an impact on VA creating town hall meetings. Through our System Worth Saving Task Force, where we started town hall meetings three years ago, we immediately understood the value of it. They always worked better when VA was present. They understood the issues of the veterans firsthand. Our recommendations in most of the places we have been was that VA facility conduct its own town hall meeting.

TAL: Why is it important to transition from "crisis" mode to "outreach" mode?

RB: By its very nature, crisis can't last forever. If it does, what's the end result? Crisis has to end, and the scandal that took place from the spring up until late summer is over. But, we've learned so much from that. We want to continue to offer the service to veterans because of the environment that we create: the environment of friendliness, the environment that we are here, in fact, to help. We cannot do it alone. VA cannot do it alone. We have to work in partnership. For future use, the VA should consider its own outreach in cooperation not only with The American Legion, but with any (veterans service organization) that's willing to work in partnership for the purpose of ensuring that the veterans get the benefits entitled to them and access to the health care that's entitled to them.

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Veteran Benefits