Legion's First Female Executive Director 'Looking Forward' With VA

Verna Jones

Verna Jones, who was recently named executive director of The American Legion, says the 2.4 million member organization is not looking to relive arguments about disability and appointment backlogs with the Veterans Affairs Department.

The contentious period that came to a head with revelations that numerous VA hospitals manipulated patient wait times and that veterans died spurred the Legion to demand the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last May.

But with VA Secretary Bob McDonald appearing to make progress in fixing VA's problems, the Legion wants to focus on the future, said Jones.

"Now understand this -- we are well aware of what happened and we're still keeping our eye on that," she said. "It's not one of those things where we're saying ‘It happened, the VA got slapped on the hand and we've forgotten about it.'

"We will never forget. But there's nothing gained by continuing to go back and rehashing it unless it needs to be rehashed." The VA has pledged transparency, accountability and visibility, and as long as it keeps that pledge the Legion will support McDonald. 

The important thing is to make sure veterans get the benefits and care they have earned, she said.

Tuesday is Veterans' Day, "the official day that honors veterans ... the day American gets to say thank you to our veterans in some official capacity," said the first female executive director of the Legion.

"For the Legion, every day is Veteran's Day. That's our mission -- to take care of America's veterans."

Ron Abrams, joint executive director for the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington, said the Legion couldn't have picked a better person to work with the VA and also keep an eye it.

"She's exceptionally well qualified and an extremely hard worker," said Abrams. "She's as honest as the day is long and has a terrific background in veterans' law -- unusual for top managers -- so people can't get much by her."

On her way up the ranks she argued veterans' disability claims cases before the Veterans Board of Appeals. About four years ago she was named director of the Legion's veterans' affairs and rehabilitation division in Washington, a job that frequently had her testifying before Congress. This past year she organized Veterans Crisis Command Centers across the country to help veterans file claims for overdue benefits.

As of Nov. 1, the Legion had held 11 such events and helped more than 3,000 veterans secure a total of $900,000 in retroactive VA compensation.

Abrams called the crisis centers "incredibly successful" and said Jones "is an example of what veterans can do if given the chance."

She joined the Legion in 2004, working as a service officer helping veteranss file for claims while attending law school. But with law degree and North Carolina bar certification in hand she did not practice law, but stayed working for the Legion.

Her move up the ranks to direct the Legion's Washington office -- making her the group's representative to the White House, Congress, VA, Pentagon and every other federal department -- was a historic event. She is the first woman in the job, in all likelihood the first African-American although the Legion is still trying to confirm it.

Jones is committed to women's issues, but said the Legion has been advocating for women veterans for some time.

In 2010, it funded a national survey of 3,012 women veterans to determine their healthcare needs and learn if they are being met. It was the first survey of its kind since the VA conducted one in 1985.

"With all of our programs, we have to make sure where there is a difference there has to be something additional [to help the veteran] because of gender-specific differences," she said. The Legion has women's outreach programs and women members who assist new women veterans in applying for benefits or dealing with VA healthcare.

One program is called Sister to Sister. A female Legion member wearing a pink tee-shirt will meet up with a female veteran going in for a first-time VA hospital appointment and help her through the process. They'll get the new veterans where they need to go and if any tests are referred outside the VA, they will follow-up to make sure the results get back into VA hands in a timely manner.

"When you are a member of a particular segment, whether you're a Vietnam veteran, a female veteran or an Iraq an Afghanistan veteran, you bring something to the experience that leads to a better understanding of what veterans need," she said. 

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com.

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