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VVA’s Service Officer Program: The Veteran’s Benefit


When David Willson, a VVA member battling Agent Orange-induced bone cancer, applied to the VA for his veterans benefits last September, he found out that the vast government agency had his name spelled wrong and his address all screwed up. But that was the least of the Seattle resident’s VA-related problems.

As Willson faced radiation, debilitating chemotherapy, and a harrowing bone-marrow transplant, months went by with no word from the VA about the fate of his benefits application. He was not alone. VA employees today face a mountain of more than one million unprocessed claims by veterans seeking physical and psychological disability compensation. “There is a backlog,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told the House Veterans Affairs Committee October 14. “It is too big, and veterans are waiting too long for decisions.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota put it more bluntly at a committee hearing last March. The VA, he said, is “almost criminally behind in processing claims.”

Fortunately, Willson went to see Roosevelt Ward, a VVA Service Officer and retired Navy veteran who works out of the VVA office on the tenth floor of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in Seattle—the same building that houses the VA’s Seattle regional office. Ward is one of 420 VVA-accredited Service Officers across the nation who work in VA facilities, Vet Centers, VA Medical Centers, and in VVA State Council or Chapter offices. He shares the Seattle office with two other VVA Service Officers, Rick Carman and Rosslyn Miller.

Ward and other VVA Service Officers have successfully completed an intense, one-week Service Officers Training Course, which normally is held once a year at VVA national headquarters. (Advanced training has been offered at VVA National Leadership Conferences.) The course is taught by David Houppert, Esq., VVA’s Veterans Benefits Director, with help from VVA’s Veterans Benefits attorneys, other attorneys who practice veterans’ law, and experts in different types of veterans’ benefits such as Tom Berger, the former Chair of VVA’s PTSD/Substance Abuse Committee.

“At the end of the week, they are given a take-home exam,” Houppert said. “If they pass and get a recommendation from their State Council President, and if they are of good moral character, they are certified by the VA as VVA Service Officers. Almost all of them are ready to step into the job, and almost all have a job set up through their State Council or Chapter.”

VVA’s Service Officers have one job: to help veterans and their eligible family members wade their way through the VA bureaucracy to get the benefits they earned while serving their country in uniform. The Service Officers have several huge advantages when it comes to doing that job. They are well trained; they are experienced in dealing with the complex VA system; and they have access to VA information that veteran claimants do not. The service is free.

Roosevelt Ward went to work right away on David Willson’s stalled claim; by April, Willson received notice from the VA that he would be rated at 100 percent. Willson firmly believes that Ward was responsible for the good result.

“It’s heart and magic and who you know,” Willson said. “Roosevelt Ward has special qualities; he’s a magic guy.”

On a recent weekday, the phone rang constantly in the VVA office. Several veterans walked in. They wanted to know what happened to their benefits claims. They wanted to ask how to file a claim. Or what had happened to an old claim. Or if a certain document—a birth certificate, say, or a doctor’s affidavit—was in a claims file. Or if a file had even been reviewed. Or why a monthly disability check had not arrived. Or if a pension had been granted. Or if the VA would cover the cost of extra medical bills.

To find answers to these and many other questions, Ward and the other Service Officers can go on “Virtual VA,” the VA computer system, to gain access to myriad VA forms and records. Ward augments that detective work by calling VA claims workers and by making personal visits to them two floors above his offices. Ward calls it “doing my tours topside.”

“I can go up there, let them know I’m there and can actually look at a file to see, for example, if the DD-214 is in there. If a vet off the street requests a look at his file, he is supposed to be able to see it in thirty days but rarely is.”

The more time Ward puts in on the job, the more he learns about the system, and the more effective he is in helping veterans get results with their claim. “You’re in a classroom every day here,” he said. “I have learned when and where to go for what I need for my troops.”

That afternoon, Ward paid one of his regular visits to the folks at the VA’s 12th floor offices. He walked the floor, greeting many VA employees by name, asking after their kids and spouses, checking on his clients’ claims.

At one point, a VA staffer pulled him aside. They walked between filing cabinets and had a short, private conversation about the particulars of a client’s case. The VA employee happened to have the client’s files in her arms as they spoke. There was no red tape as the two conversed; no maze of bureaucracy. After their chat, both were pleased.

“Roosevelt is okay,” the woman said.



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