BALTIMORE — Dawn Brown left the Navy after 15 years when she developed Hodgkin's lymphoma. She lost her job as a secretary at a Baltimore school about a month before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She didn't know that her military service qualified her for disability benefits.
Now, she has made it her mission to make sure no other veteran misses the opportunity to receive the benefits the government promised when they put on the uniform.
Brown's is the first face most people see when they visit the Baltimore office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which helped more than 1,500 former servicemembers in Maryland collect more than $26 million in disability benefits last year from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
That was nearly triple the number of individuals the VFW helped in 2011.
When Brown counsels veterans, she says, they know that they're talking with "someone who knows what they're going through." The 49-year-old Baltimore woman has worked as the office secretary at the VFW's local office for about a year.
"It is fulfilling," she said. "It makes you feel good inside being able to help them."
Nationwide, the VFW helped 125,000 veterans collect more than $3.7 billion last year in disability benefits — a year-to-year increase of 23,000 veterans and about $1.7 billion.
Former service members depend on organizations such as the VFW to help navigate a disability claims process that has a significant backlog and a high rate of error.
Veterans with outstanding claims — the list currently numbers 900,000 — wait an average of nine months for the VA to issue an initial decision. The wait at the Baltimore regional office, one of the slowest in the country, is close to a year.
Appeals can take years.
John E. Hamilton, the national commander of the VFW, said no wounded, ill or injured veteran should complete the 12-page VA claims form without the free, professional assistance of an accredited veterans service officer.
"And no military person should ever separate or retire without first seeking assistance from a veterans' service officer stationed on their installation through the Pentagon's Benefits Delivery at Discharge program," he said. "It literally means the difference between receiving VA benefits or not."
Jerry Manar, deputy director of the VFW's National Veterans Service arm, credited the increase in veterans helped with the addition of service officers and more accurate internal data reporting.
At the Baltimore office at 31 Hopkins Plaza, which serves all of Maryland, another major factor was the decision to move evaluations of disability claims of personnel exiting the service to another location, Manar said.
The VFW's 1,200 service officers are positioned at VA offices and military installations across the country, including Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
The VFW runs on membership dues and charitable contributions. Honorably discharged veterans do not need to be members to receive assistance, Manar said.
The VFW trains officers to be "as good and better than the VA employees with whom they deal."
He said the advocates can look objectively at a claim to determine whether the veteran has a condition that stands a chance of being approved for benefits to make sure claims contain all necessary documents and to help correct mistakes the VA sometimes makes.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs says the agency appreciates the assistance of the VFW and other service organizations accredited to help veterans apply for federal and state benefits.
"These organizations are staunch advocates and facilitators of veterans benefits and services," spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said. "We believe with their partnership, advocacy and assistance they provide, our Veterans and their families are better served."
The state Department of Veterans Affairs also offers free help with filing claims. Service members may also hire lawyers or other representatives.
Phillip Munley, director of the service and benefits program for state Department of Veterans Affairs, said his office helped file more than 4,100 disability claims during the fiscal year that ended June 30 and is on pace to work on 5,000 claims this year.
"I always encourage veterans to use some form of representative," said Munley, who is a retired from the Navy. "This process is complicated."
At the VFW's Baltimore office, Mary Walters has one piece of advice for veterans filing a claim: "Don't give up."
Walters, 56, spent 21 years in the Army, including combat service in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. She has an outstanding disability claim to build on a previous 30 percent disability rating for foot, knee and shoulder injuries she sustained during combat training and a daily 7-mile running regimen.
"I gave up; I gave up for 14 years," Walters said.
But veterans who follow that example she said, are throwing money away.
"Someone will know how to help them," she said. "If we can't help them, we'll tell them the truth."