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Organization provides free counsel as more VA disability is awarded in Augusta, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tyrone Williams nearly lost it Monday when the word “unavailable” appeared next to his disability application on the Department of Veterans Affairs Web site.

“That’s depressing,” said the Augusta Army veteran who served in Vietnam about his claim. “I need to see a psychiatrist now.”

Since the former artilleryman first filed a claim for partial hearing loss almost three years ago, VA statistics show the number of veterans awarded disability in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties has increased by nearly 15 percent, rising from 12,937 in 2011 to 14,816 in 2013.

Despite the boost in benefits, hundreds of area veterans such as Williams said during a town-hall meeting Rep. John Barrow held earlier this month that they still face long waits, mishandled documents and confusing communications between the military and the VA for pending claims.

Williams, 65, said last week the VA’s Web site listed the research phase of his application, which includes several nonservice-connected injuries he suffered in a south Augusta car crash in 2000, as “closed,” because it has not received his medical records. Now, he’s worried that the federal agency might have lost the evidence needed to prove he is unemployable and in need of financial assistance for breaking a leg, hip, collar bone, knee and both ankles in the crash.

To help provide speed and clarity to the process, the American Bar Association, in close coordination with the VA, has started the Veterans Claims Assistance Network to provide unrepresented veterans with pending claims the opportunity to work with lawyers for free to complete their benefit packages for expedited review.

There are 23 million veterans nationwide and the VA receives 900,000 new claims per year, more than one-third of which are from those who served in the Vietnam era. Claims most suitable for assistance involve incomplete or deficient claims that lack key supporting documents, James R. Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association, said in a news release.

“Lawyers fundamentally understand what it takes to assemble evidence and present a persuasive case,” Silkenat said in the release. “It is a natural fit to engage the legal skills of lawyers with the need of veterans for assistance in making their cases to the VA for disability compensation.”

The development of the claim is often the longest part of the process that determines whether a veteran is entitled to VA compensation, often taking more than 200 days, Silkenat said.

For example, Williams submitted a claim in early 2011, and online records show the VA did not acknowledge receipt until Aug. 29 of that year.

Williams said he has not hired an attorney because of a lack of funds, but that he would consider calling the American Bar Association. To get started, veterans eligible for disability can contact the association at ABAVCAN.org.

“I am not getting anything from Uncle Sam for the service I gave this country and it hurts,” Williams said. “It’s like they just threw me out the door.”
 

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