MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Increasing numbers of veterans find themselves struggling to navigate the complicated intricacies of the Department of Veterans Affairs, whether they are trying to obtain medical attention, submit an appeal or file a compensation claim for injuries they received defending the country.
After reading recent stories in the Montgomery Advertiser, two veterans, David Payne, 64, and Phillip Grantham, 58, came forward to share how they have helped others get the VA’s attention.
As a veteran advocate living in Wetumpka, Payne said he has helped more veterans than he can name wade through the policies of the Central Alabama Veteran Health Care System since he was discharged from the Navy in 1969.
What is a veteran advocate?
“Every veteran worth his salt is going to be a vet advocate to some degree, but there are National Service Officers and Veteran Service Officers recognized by different organization like VFW posts. It’s just a way to represent vets that are in need of help, in need of advice, in need of assistance, some in claims and some in clarification. Some just want to know what their rights are and what I can do to help them get there.”
As an advocate, how do you help veterans?
“I go to the VA and I talk to people and veterans. I monitor staffing. I’ll meet with the director, and I will confront situations as they come up.“
Why did you want to become an advocate?
“I left Vietnam in 1969, and from that day forward, I made a promise that I would never hurt anything or anybody, and I would do my best to make sure that people understood Vietnam, where I was and where I went so that people will understand that we weren’t the baby-killing bunch that they called us.”
What training or requirements are needed to become an advocate?
“There are certain ones, like NSOs (National Service Officers), who will go through a training program of some sort. ... VSOs (Veteran Service Officers) are the exact same thing — they’re just on a local level, where your NSOs are officers who work with the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans or the American Veterans.”
Are you compensated for your services?
“No, I am disallowed from ever receiving any compensation of any kind because if I received money, then I would be obligated to somebody or some entity that might influence my direction. Like when I speak on a video conference with a judge in Washington, D.C., who do I represent? I represent the gentleman that I am sitting by.”
How do you become an advocate?
“Any veteran can become a veteran advocate. I’m the president to the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in Montgomery and cover over 17 counties ... and we have approximately 400,000 vets that live in Alabama. This is a very strong veteran state.”
What do you think is the problem with the VA?
“Administrators are administrators, but the real problem with our entire system right now is leadership from the top down. If you have a sorry platoon in the service, chances are you have a sorry leader. ... It’s the same way with the VA since it started.”
“It’s totally uncalled for, it’s unfair and it’s treating our veterans like second-class citizens.”
What are the common problems veterans come to you with?
“Claims denials. ... The VA determines a value of your claim from 10 percent to 100 percent and whether it is service connected or not. ... If you have hearing loss because you were a bomber or a gunner, then it would qualify you for service-connected care, but you would not necessarily get the money you claimed.”
“I’m working with a guy right now that is 77 years old, and he was injured in Vietnam. And he received 10 percent for his leg injury, which is ridiculous because he can’t drive and in reality, he really needs a caregiver. But the VA doesn’t recognize that because he’s not a 100 percent. In order for you to qualify for some of these benefits, you have to be 100 percent disabled.”
How many people have you been able to help?
“Oh, Lord, I have to say, a lot of people. I really can’t put a number on it. Sometimes it’s just a phone call, and then sometimes it’s helping them sit down and write what they can’t put into words. ... I never sent something in that didn’t get direct attention.”
To find Payne and other veteran advocates, visit VVA.org.
Phillip Grantham, 58, left the Navy as a chief petty officer during the Cold War and has advised veterans on their VA claims and appeals for years. He said no two claims are alike, but he’s used these guidelines as a veteran service officer with his Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Andalusia.
“The documentation process is crazy, but veterans have to learn what they are dealing with,” Grantham said. “The VA healthcare system works for some vets better than others. I've witnessed this first hand when you help a vet out. A lot of guys have already had repeated denials that make them just give up.”
Health issues and time spent working on his own VA claims have forced Grantham to leave his service officer duties, he still shares tips and advice.
- Prior to the end of service, make sure to obtain a separation physical.
- Obtain all medical records during one’s time in service.
- Make sure any double-sided pages are copied and keep track of paperwork.
- Obtain one’s DD-214 or copy of discharge or release from active duty upon completion of enlistment.
- Join a local service organization like Veterans of Foreign Wars or Disabled American Veterans and take advantage of a veterans service officer to help navigate through the VA system.
- If an officer helps organize a claim, follow that claim to make sure it goes to the correct agency.
- Obtain complete entrance and separation physicals in order to document changes and defects related to the effects of war.
- A separation physical takes two days of lab work, X-rays and clinical notes. Make sure the examination is complete and not partially done.
- Obtain a Code of Federal Regulation-38 booklet, which outlines all veterans’ pension, bonuses and veteran relief information. Use the codes and appropriate language within to formulate claims and letters.
- Keep up-to-date on the most recent changes and updates.
Have patience. A claim will not go through overnight.