By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 19, 2011 – In what started out as a small pilot program, members of Disabled American Veterans, working with the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, began visiting wounded warriors at Fort Bragg, N.C., to talk about benefits and services available to them after they leave active duty.
Now 40 DAV transition service officers have become regulars at 144 military installations participating in the joint VA-DOD Benefits Delivery and Discharge Program, which provides transition assistance to separating service members who incurred disabilities related to their military service.
DAV National Commander Wallace E. “Wally” Tyson called DAV’s contribution a vital link to the newest generation of disabled veterans.
“We want to get to those veterans before they are released from active duty so we can help get them on a path toward reinstituting a life for themselves and making sure they know what benefits are available to them and their families,” he told American Forces Press Service.
As partners in military transition assistance programs and disability transition assistance programs, DAV transition service officers conduct or participate in pre-discharge briefings, review wounded warriors’ treatment records on request and confer with Defense and Labor Department officials and other participants in the discharge process.
The program, Tyson said, enables DAV to help service members through the process of developing evidence, completing applications and prosecuting claims for veterans benefits administered under federal, state and local laws. But one of the biggest benefits of the effort, he added, is ensuring that separating service members don’t find themselves in a situation where their military benefits are discontinued and VA benefits have not yet started.
“I can’t overemphasize the value of the complete package,” agreed Ron Minter, DAV’s national service officer supervisor for Maryland. “When [transition assistance officers] have that opportunity, it allows more prompt service and a smoother transition and, to a greater degree, a seamless transition” from military to civilian life.
And even if transitioning service members may not feel the need for DAV support now, Tyson said, that initial contact lays important groundwork for future help, when and if it is needed. DAV’s outreach to wounded warriors about to make this transition is a natural extension of its historic mission to serve veterans with service-connected disabilities and their families, he said.
Robert S. Marx, a captain who had been wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France in November 1918, is credited with founding DAV to serve disabled World War I veterans who returned home to little government support. Congress, impressed with its effectiveness, chartered DAV in 1932 as the primary advocate for disabled veterans.
Ninety-one years since its founding, Tyson said, DAV is as relevant today as it’s been at any time in its history. He noted the growing number of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have joined its 1.2 million-member ranks, benefiting from its claims and benefits assistance and its voluntary services program.
DAV offers a broad range of services to disabled veterans, all at no charge, thanks in large part to an army of more than 14,000 volunteers. Some drive a fleet of more than 1,400 vans, transporting veterans to VA medical centers, supermarkets or even barber shops. Others volunteer their services at VA medical facilities and regional clinics.
In addition, a cadre of highly trained national service officers, all with wartime-service-connected disabilities, reviews veterans’ claims and ensures veterans know what benefits and services they’re entitled to.
During 2010 alone, they interviewed almost 185,000 veterans and their families, Tyson reported. As a result, they filed more than 250,000 new claims for benefits, obtaining $5.1 billion in new and retroactive benefits for the disabled veterans they represented.
In addition, DAV employs nine national appeals officers who represent disabled veterans before the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Last year, these national appeals officers represented appellants in about 5,000 cases. Of those cases, Tyson reported, almost three-quarters resulted in the original decisions being overturned or remanded to regional office rating boards for additional development and re-adjudication.
In an effort to better support disabled veterans, DAV is increasing its outreach into rural areas and other areas where veterans traditionally have been underserved. During 2010, DAV’s 10 new mobile service offices traveled almost 115,000 miles and visited 815 cities and towns to interview more than 20,000 veterans and other potential claimants, Tyson reported.
“This outreach effort generates a considerable amount of claims work from those veterans who may not otherwise have the opportunity to seek assistance at DAV national service offices,” he said.
One of the more popular outreach efforts, the “Harley’s Heroes” project, involves setting up DAV booths at local Harley-Davidson Motor Co. dealerships that underwrite the cost of the project. Mobile service offices visited 183 Harley-Davidson dealerships last year. In addition to serving up refreshments and distributing information, DAV national service officers offered to review veterans’ paperwork to help in determining whether they’re eligible for benefits or services.
“We want them to bring any evidence they have, if they never filed a claim or want to reopen a claim,” Tyson said. “And they’re getting the best of both worlds. They don’t have to travel [to a VA facility], and they are going to get an expert working on their claim. Our national service officers are the best-trained out there.”
With most of its current members from the Vietnam War era, Tyson said, it’s time for the organization to throw its support to the nation’s youngest disabled veterans and welcome them into the fold.
“We don’t want a repeat [of the Vietnam homecoming experience],” Tyson said. “We hope we have learned from those mistakes, and to a great degree, I believe we as a nation have. Now we want to incorporate the younger veterans. It’s our turn to mentor them and let them take some of the leadership roles” within DAV.
“I believe, personally, that we are the best advocates for disabled veterans, their wives, their widows, their children and their survivors,” Tyson said. “That is because we have one and only one mission: to build better lives for disabled American veterans and their families. We have struck to that since this organization was founded, and I believe that is the reason the organization is so successful.”