Vets get help solving VA ‘mystery’

Great Falls Tribune

by Peter Johnson

The federal government is simplifying how veterans can apply for and get health, disability and educational benefits, “but navigating the Veterans Administration system is still a mystery to many,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Wednesday.

The Montana Democrat held a three-hour workshop in Great Falls, during which experts gave tips on particular programs to nearly 100 active duty military members, veterans and their families.

Tester, the first Montana senator to serve on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has pushed legislation increasing the mileage reimbursement rate for veterans traveling to VA medical centers from 11 cents to 41 cents a mile, and boosting the number of Montana veterans clinics from eight to 14.

“We’re trying to make sure veterans get the benefits they’ve earned,” he said. “We’re breaking down bureaucratic walls and making the system more user-friendly.”

For instance, Tester said the VA has hired more medical professionals in rural states to treat veterans who suffered brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder, but it still needs more.

One success story is Joe Griffin, 29, an Air Force RED HORSE Squadron veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Griffin will complete a finance degree next spring at Montana State University, and has a job lined up with the U.S. Energy Department.

“My experience was great in getting veteran’s health, home mortgage and education benefits,” said Griffin, whose father and grandfather also attended college on the G.I. Bill. “Most of my paperwork was returned in 30 to 60 days.”

“The key was planning early, asking questions a year before I left the service,” he said. “This is not an overnight thing.”

Even with early research, he found some glitches, Griffin said, including a VA letter mistakenly adding “Debra and the kids” to his benefits even though he was not married. That took some explaining to his girlfriend, he quipped.

Griffin now counsels veterans part time at Bozeman and said some of them find “it’s difficult to get consistent information from the massive VA call-in center in St. Louis.

They get conflicting advice and information, depending on who they talk with.”

Griffin recommended better standardized training at the call center, or maybe decentralizing it to the state level.

Robert Kim King, 60, a Fort Belknap Indian Reservation veteran living in Great Falls, said it took him nearly 20 years to get VA medical help and counseling.

He received a general discharge after reacting violently under the pressure of an attack in Vietnam, King said, and initially was told he would never qualify for veterans’ benefits. He was later treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It sounds like the VA system for treating troubled vets is getting a little better, but I still don’t think Native Americans are getting all the help they need,” King said in an interview.

He said his nephew, who was injured in Iraq, has to make a long trip from Fort Belknap to the Fort Harrison VA center near Helena for treatment. He has found counseling by telephone is not as effective as in person.

Tester has three Montana caseworkers, who spend most of their time helping as many as 100 veterans a month qualify for educational, health and disability benefits, said Bruce Knutson, Tester’s veterans liaison.

The 21st Century G.I. bill approved last year can provide as much as $15,000 a year in college tuition and living expenses for veterans with at least three years in the military, he said. That is considerably better than the earlier law, he added.

Rodger McConnell, a coordinator the Vets for Vets group that provides food, clothing and supplies to homeless veterans in the area, praised Tester for helping streamline the veterans’ benefits system.

“It’s much easier for new veterans today to obtain benefits, but still complicated,” he said. “And veterans who have been traumatized in combat have a much lower threshold of patience waiting to work through the system.”

McConnell recommended that service members ask questions before they leave the military and “seek help through the maze” from veteran service officers working for veterans groups.

Also on Wednesday, John Wesley, a recruiting manager for BNSF Railway, was on hand to help veterans find work.

“My number one goal is to link transitioning veterans with our job opportunities across 28 Western states,” he said. “We value what veterans can provide, including a strong work ethic, good skills, dedication and safety-mindedness.”

The railroad expects to hire a few hundred veterans in its northern states alone over the next three months, he said, a sign of the improving economy.

It is looking for skilled workers, including diesel jet mechanics who can learn to work on locomotive engines, and unskilled “warfighters” who can start doing car repairs and line maintenance.