Veterans' advocates: '99 programs that aren't talking to each ot - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Veterans' advocates: '99 programs that aren't talking to each other'

Advocates say besides complex bureaucracy and some redundancy, the biggest issue for vets is tracking down the help they need and signing up. (Source: WAFF) Advocates say besides complex bureaucracy and some redundancy, the biggest issue for vets is tracking down the help they need and signing up. (Source: WAFF)

At this point, disabled Navy Veteran Nancy Eason declares herself an expert in the veterans' benefits paper chase. 

Her career ran all the way from the Vietnam War to the first Persian Gulf War, but when she retired, she recalled a confounding bureaucratic maze of forms and records.

“Well, it took me 12 and a half years to get my claim settled,” she said. “In DC, even though I took (my paperwork) there in person twice, they lost it both times within six months. And then Baltimore, they sent me a letter and I took a copy of everything to Baltimore - and they lost it too.”

A new report from the Government Accountability Office found a vast number of programs to help veterans transition to civilian life offered through the Veterans Administration or the Defense Department, 99 of them ”to help address the effects of combat on… service members, their families, or both,” and 87 to help “service members and veterans transition to civilian life.”

[Report in full (PDF)] [Summary/highlights]

“When they come back, they want to get on with their lives,” said Harley Goble with the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs. "They want to go to school. They're just ready to move on.”

“The system itself is just so cumbersome, it's hard,” said Bill Koch, Director of Still Serving Veterans, which helps veterans wend their way through the paperwork and bureaucracy of tracking down their benefits and programs to help them. 

Veterans advocates like Koch say the challenge for veterans becomes a matter of juggling a huge system that few people can grasp.

“You've got 99 programs that aren't talking to each other,” he said. “So if a veteran goes in to get access to one program, he doesn't know about the other 98 programs.”

The GAO reports most of the programs offer:

  • Support for mental health and substance abuse. There are a lot of those focusing on health, drugs and suicide prevention.
  • Information and referral
  • Help for vets in managing their cases.

But some of those programs get into aspects of veterans' lives civilians might never even dream of.

For veterans who've lost limbs, the Veterans Health Administration offers a special allowance because those plastic and metal prostheses can be unusually tough on your wardrobe.

“As a matter of fact, I helped a veteran file for the clothing allowance this morning,” Goble recalled. “Your service-connected disability wears out your clothes much faster than somebody that doesn't have to wear that prosthetic device. “

Another program, the “burn pit registry,” officially tracks vets who may have been exposed to hazards during the disposal of dangerous chemicals, such as chemical weapons, and may develop health problems years later.

“There are people that I'm tracking now that have problems with lungs and other issues,” said Eason. “There are cancers involved too. They're on that burn pit registry and it shows that they were there and they were exposed.”

Some programs aren't aimed at veterans at all. Instead, they target those who know, or even employ veterans or current reservists to give them a better understanding of service members' world.

The Defense Department's “Boss Lift” actually transports employers out to where National Guard or Reserve troops are deployed to see what their workers do when they're on duty.

The VA's “Coaching into Care” program even offers lessons for relatives and friends on ways to talk to their veterans, and “motivate veterans to seek assistance.”

“We've got veterans here in the community with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Goble explained. “You just say one thing in the wrong order or the wrong manner and it'll set them off. It'll remind them of unhappy times.”

A favorite of veterans and veterans' advocates remains the 70-year-old “GI Bill,” which pays for vets to go to college.

As a disabled vet, Nancy Eason turned to the vocational rehabilitation program to get her masters degree.

“If you're 20 percent or more disabled, then the vocational rehab will pay for you to go to school,” she pointed out.

Advocates say besides complex bureaucracy and some redundancy, the biggest issue for vets is tracking down the help they need and signing up.

Troops and veterans have the option of going through a week-long Transition Assistance Program to help them wind their way through the programs aimed at helping them. Redstone Arsenal offers a broad array of referrals and education on what is available in its Army Reserve Center.

Nancy Eason now works with veterans to find their way through the system, and she says local organizations like Still Serving Veterans, North Alabama Veterans Coalition, and Veterans of North Alabama Services Coalition are filling in the cracks between the government's programs and connecting vets to what they need if the programs don't quite make the connection.

“Everybody that works with veterans, everybody that I've run across is passionate about helping the veterans,” insisted Koch. “The competency levels are different sometimes. But the folks that are working with the veterans, they generally want to help.”

Copyright 2015 WAFF. All rights reserved.

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  • GAO report

    GAO report

    Thursday, January 8 2015 10:20 PM EST2015-01-09 03:20:07 GMT
    Thursday, January 8 2015 10:20 PM EST2015-01-09 03:20:08 GMT
    Summary/highlightsReport in full (PDF)More >>
    Summary/highlightsReport in full (PDF)More >>
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