VA commits to better serve local vets

VA commits to better serve local vets
September 12
00:00 2014
(pictured above:  Chester Boston left the meeting encouraged.)

Veterans voiced their frustrations with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) during a two-hour town hall event last Thursday at the VA Winston-Salem Regional Benefits Office.

Public comments were heard after the VA hosted a daylong workshop during which 175 veterans were seen to discuss their benefit claims. The VA system has made headlines in recent years for its slow processing of claims. The agency has also come under fire for long wait times and using clerical tricks to conceal the large number of vets who are on waiting lists.

The Winston-Salem office found itself at the center of the storm in 2012, when the sheer weight of its backlogged paperwork appeared “to have the potential to compromise the integrity of the building,” according to an inspector general’s report.

VA Regional Director Cheryl Rawls said her office, which processes veterans disability compensation claims for North Carolina and all of the Eastern half of the country, has made much progress since then. Her staff has worked mandatory overtime to clear the backlog, she said. As of July 31, only 18 claims that were more than two years old remained on the books, and the number of claims more than a year old has been reduced by 94 percent.



“We have a lot of work to do; we’ve been doing a lot of work,” Rawls told the audience. “We have 700 over-dedicated employees here, of which 68 percent of them are veterans. We talk about ways to be better. We’ve made some progress, and I want to hear from you. What’s on your mind. Things we can do better.”

Despite the progress, a string of veterans voiced their confusion, disappointment and sometimes disgust with the VA. Many were frustrated with red tape and the criteria their claims need to meet. They often complained that they felt the system was callous.

A retired Air Force medic teared-up as she recalled a psychiatrist examining her claim and telling her that she couldn’t prove that she was raped. She said women who’ve been raped in the military need more support.

“I honestly don’t trust the VA at all anymore, and that’s how I feel and I don’t want to feel that way,” she said.

Several complained that the phone just rang with no answer when they called Salisbury’s Hefner VA Medical Center. Others said they had called their Senator or Congressional representative to complain about VA doctors who wouldn’t see them.

Complaints were made about misdiagnoses and medical record mistakes; some accused the VA of intentionally making such errors.

“If you can’t help me and you can’t help Vietnam (veterans), how are you going to help Iraq and Afghanistan (veterans)?” asked one veteran. “You got to help us and got to be there for us because we’ve given for you.”

Rawls, an Army veteran who has headed the regional office since February 2012, had anyone with a claims issue to meet with a VA employee immediately after he or she left the microphone. At the end, she called the emotional and sometimes heated town hall the VA’s “report card” and thanked the vets for “keeping it real.”

Not all comments were entirely negative. Veterans’ advocate Ciatt Shabazz, who founded HARRY Veterans Community Outreach Services after her late brother’s experience with the VA left her bewildered, expressed frustration that “it has become almost impossible to navigate through the bureaucracy of the VA,” but she had high praise for Rawls and her efforts to fix things.



“On both sides of the coin, there are some rotten apples that make your job difficult. You’re the best I’ve seen in 30 years,” she told Rawls.

Several veterans, including Vietnam veteran Chester Boston, said they appreciated the workshop. Boston has been trying to get the VA to accept his claims for 40 years. During the workshop, he was approved for his claim for his heart problems and told his claim for leukemia, as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, just needed more information from his doctor to get approved.

“This is the first time I came here and people were like ‘yes, yes, yes,’ and they were pretty nice about it,” he said. “For 40 years, I felt like I did my job for my country. and I felt like I was let down.”

The Regional Office has also held workshops and town halls for hundreds of veterans at American Legion posts in Charlotte and Raleigh.

The local VA office, located at 251 N. Main St. in the Ward Federal Building, accepts regular walk-ins for veterans’ claims from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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