DAVID GREENE, HOST:
To understand the role of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, just listen to how it describes its own mission - quote, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." It says nothing about geography, but as we've been reporting this week, for veterans, when it comes to getting the benefits they deserve, where they live matters.
Yesterday, we heard how vets in some communities don't receive all the health, disability or education benefits that vets in other communities receive. Today, we're focusing on one state - Indiana. Reporter Steve Walsh from Lakeshore Public Media in Merrillville, Indiana, has been looking for answers, and he joins us on the line. Hey, Steve.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: Well, let's start with some of the basics here. So vets in Indiana are really not getting the benefits that they have earned - they deserve.
WALSH: Well, David, a lot of work has been done by a man named Jim Bauerle, retired brigadier general. He's worked with veterans in Indiana for years. A couple of years ago, he came across this data put out by the Department of Veterans Affairs. He began doing some calculations himself. He found that Indiana was actually near the bottom among the states in 2012. He began pressing state lawmakers, veterans groups and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now, Indiana is usually seen as pretty friendly to the military. But after a couple of years, Bauerle kind of came to his own conclusion. Here's what he had to say.
GENERAL JIM BAUERLE: I think that Indiana has neglected veterans. I think that veterans are uneducated as to what their benefits are, and there has been little effort undertaken to communicate and get that to veterans.
GREENE: What is going on here? Why are vets in Indiana receiving less money than vets in other states?
WALSH: Well, there could be a lot of reasons. Back in 2010, a VA survey found that, nationwide, fewer than half of veterans understood their benefits, whether it was medical care, college tuition or pension and disability payments. And vets who retire from the military tend to receive more benefits. And they often congregate around military bases, and Indiana has no active duty military base. But Bauerle believes that one of the big reasons is Indiana vets aren't getting enough help filling out the forms. And if you don't fill out the forms the right way, the VA rejects the claim.
GREENE: But filling out forms for federal benefits - isn't that really the VA's problem and not something that Indiana and the state has to worry about?
WALSH: States often try to help their vets. Indiana is one of 28 states which have county veterans service officers. They're supposed to help vets get the benefits they've earned. They're hired by counties, and they often operate on a shoestring. Here's how General Bauerle describes some of these offices.
BAUERLE: Some counties have an individual that works three days a week, part-time and doesn't even have an office or a computer to support their veteran.
WALSH: So depending on where they live, a vet might find an office with a full-time staff trained to file paperwork with the VA, while another vet might find a closed office or a VSO who can't easily navigate the system.
GREENE: Well, Steve, let me just get this straight here. I mean, we're talking about veterans. It depends on where they live whether or not they get their benefits. And that's because, in part, a lot of it depends on whether they have access to this VSO, this officer who does a lot of the work for them.
WALSH: Exactly, David. I wanted to find out actually if things were as bad, though, as the retired general was suggesting. I found Tom Nichols, who is a 29-year-old National Guard veteran.
TOM NICHOLS: I should have them around here somewhere.
WALSH: Nichols lives in a trailer in north Hammond. When I visited him, he was digging through all his papers for a letter he got from the VA about his disability claim.
NICHOLS: Here it is. Department of Veteran Affairs. We are still processing your application for compensation. We apologize for the delay. You'll be notified...
WALSH: Nichols came back from Iraq in 2010 feeling angry. He became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Eventually, he landed in treatment for PTSD.
GREENE: Well, has he tried reaching one of these veteran service officers to help him?
WALSH: No, David. The problem is he really hasn't even tried a veterans service officer. He says it's too much trouble. So he ended up filling out the paperwork himself. To some of the medical questions, he just wrote, ask my doctor.
GREENE: That does give you a window into how tough a time he was having filling all of this out. Well, did he eventually get his benefits at some point?
WALSH: I just connected with him this past weekend. The VA rejected his claim. This process took over a year. Turns out he didn't include some essential paperwork, including something called the DD2-114.
GREENE: Oh, just the name of that makes it sound complicated.
WALSH: Well, it's not really all that complicated, at least not that one form. But the whole process really can be quite daunting to people like Tom Nichols. He's re-filed his claims. He doesn't always have someone to sort of give him a ride to different places, so he hasn't gone to a VSO, though he said that's probably going to be his next move.
GREENE: So bottom line, is it really a matter of figuring out a way to get the right paperwork filled out?
WALSH: In many ways, I think it is. So I went to the VA on that point. I talked with Dave McLenachen, who is acting deputy undersecretary for disability assistance for the VA. Here's what he told me.
DAVE MCLENACHEN: It can be overwhelming for somebody to prepare a claim and submit it. VSOs are very successful at helping with the claim process.
WALSH: The VA's own data actually says that vets who give veterans service officers power of attorney receive more than double the disability benefits of veterans who file their own claims.
GREENE: So no one is denying how important these VSOs are. I mean, the VA is basically saying that. Is anything being done to help veterans get access to these officers for the help?
WALSH: Well, I can talk about the state level. They are doing some things in Indiana. Under Governor Mike Pence, the state paid for software and training so county veterans service officers know how to file claims electronically. The latest data shows that Indiana vets receive $4,935 per vet, per year. If they just receive the national average, which is $6,088 per year, that's another $1,153 available for vets like Tom Nichols who struggle to get by. I mean, as an example, he didn't even have long-distance cell service.
GREENE: This is the vet you were trying to track down for this story, and he didn't have long-distance service - couldn't afford it to call you back, which gives you an idea of how important $1,100 could be for him.
WALSH: It's a lot of money to some people. So Bob Kelley of Grant County puts it pretty plainly. He's one of the state's top-performing VSOs. He told me you never want to apply for benefits on your own, unless you have some expertise with it. And if Indiana can come up with a little more help for VSOs, advocates like Kelley are hoping no veteran will ever have to navigate the VA system on their own.
GREENE: All right, that's one of the questions we're exploring this week as we look at veterans' benefits and the reality that for veterans to get the benefits they deserve, it often depends on where they live and what type of help they can get. Steve, thanks very much.
WALSH: Thank you, David.
GREENE: That's Steve Walsh with Lakeshore Public Media. The project is a collaboration with NPR member stations called Back at Base.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.