County Agencies Rescue Veterans from Bureaucracy

Many veterans are turning to county agencies to help them navigate the often-dense government bureaucracy that stands between them and their benefits.

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Many injured soldiers faced huge obstacles when they come home from Iraq or Afghanistan and try to get their veteran's benefits. But across the country, some local agencies are having a big impact helping veterans navigate the confusing federal bureaucracy.

NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN McCHESNEY: Ben Crowley(ph) was on patrol in Afghanistan in the gunner's turret of a Humvee when a tremendous explosion ripped up right underneath his feet.

Mr. BEN CROWLEY (Injured Veteran): Both my legs were shattered, mostly below the knee (unintelligible). They had to amputate my right leg. About five inches below the knee they had to amputate it. And the left leg, I was left with a severely damaged knee and severely damaged ankle. And they did the best they could to, you know, screw and wire my ankle back together, but I still have a lot trouble with it.

McCHESNEY: Crowley spent 14 months at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, then he moved across the country to Contra Costa County, California. The first thing he noticed was that his medical records got here a long time after he did. The Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration don't digitized records so they can be electronically transferred.

Mr. CROWLEY: I've been out here since November, or the end of October, and I'm just now fully getting processed into the system.

McCHESNEY: At first, Crowley thought he could deal with the VA on his own.

Mr. CROWLEY: You know, the paperwork - the VA sends you these letters. It's all written in this bureaucratic legalese that you can't make any sense out of, and you really need somebody to help you interpret it.

McCHESNEY: Then one of Crowley's buddies told him about the Contra Costa County Veterans Service office.

Mr. CROWLEY: At first I was kind of skeptical. I guess I'm not used to somebody being willing to help you for nothing in return. But they're a godsend.

McCHESNEY: Gary Villalba is part of what Crowley calls a godsend. He and his other six councilors help vets cut through the thicket of paperwork that's grown up around the military and the VA.

Mr. GARY VILLALBA (Contra Costa County Veterans Services): We assist them with direct application to access monetary benefits, to access VA and the Department of Defense medical care, to access all the entitlement programs that exist at the federal, state and local level for veterans and their family.

McCHESNEY: Villalba says he's seen a sharp increase in veterans walking in the doors as a result of the Iraq War - amputees, brain injuries and post-traumatic stress syndrome. He says his job is to be an advocate for the veteran, especially when the VA rejects a claim.

Mr. VILLALBA: We looked at the evidence that was involved in that case, and if we see that the VA has erred or there's a flawed decision, we will advise the client right away of that.

McCHESNEY: Still, it takes an average of nearly two years to resolve appeals at the VA. Twenty-five states have accredited county agencies like this one, but it's unclear whether all of them are as effective.

Ann Knowles of Clinton, North Carolina is president of a national organization of county vet services. She says veterans usually hear about them by word of mouth.

Ms. ANN KNOWLES (National Association of County Veterans Services Officers): From their daddy, from their uncle, from their brother. I have just had a veteran to walk in here that I was finishing up with when you called that went to the VA hospital, and the VA said you need to go to your county service officer; here, take this forms and go to her. Now, that veteran didn't know what to do with these forms.

McCHESNEY: So the good news is that in some states veterans can find expert help. The bad news is that the systems veterans confront is so complex that without a third party they may fail to get the services they've earned.

John McChesney, NPR News.

INSKEEP: American troops are not the only ones having trouble getting appropriate care. British media reported over the weekend that British troops returning home receive inadequate medical treatment. And Britain's defense secretary said on Sunday that an investigation has begun into the treatment of 18-year-old Jaime Cooper, the youngest British soldier wounded in Iraq. He was badly injured in November when a mortar bomb exploded in the southern city of Basra.

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