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Panel Makes Veterans Aware of Benefits

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 10, 2004 – Help is only as far away as a local Department of Veterans Affairs office.

That was the message from a panel discussing VA health benefits and services with disabled veterans and their families at the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes: 1st Annual Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference here today.

The first step, Margaret Russell from the Orlando VA Healthcare Center said, is simply making sure that veterans know that the VA exists and it exists for them. "Recently I had a veteran come into my office," Russell said. "And he said to me, 'I came back seven months ago. I had no idea the VA was here for me.'"

He said he was explaining to a friend that he was running out of a medication and that he couldn't afford to refill it, Russell recalled. The friend reminded him that he was a veteran and suggested he go to the VA.

He did go to the VA in Orlando, Russell said, and he was walked through the eligibility process. Immediately afterward, he was seen by a doctor and left with his prescription in hand.

Making sure vets know that the VA is there and that they are eligible for benefits is only half the battle. Community is an important step in tying the home front to the warfront.

"Our goal is to sensitize the community and educate them as to what the post- war adjustment problems are so they can be sensitive to your needs," Bill Sautner, from the Orlando Vet Center told the disabled veterans. "We realize that combat is a life-transforming experience. At the Vet Center, we're there for you when you're ready to begin talking about some of those experiences and trying to resolve them."

While reaching out is essential, getting veterans into the system is the goal. The VA has developed a "Seamless Transition" system of care, Brook Edgeman of the VA Seamless Transition Effort, said.

The system provides points of contact in all 163 VA facilities throughout the nation. Those contacts are there to answer questions, help veterans make the right contacts so they can get efficient answers to their questions and help them cut through and red tape they might encounter. They also exist to make sure that the veterans know what health benefits they are eligible for.

Sometimes the task is as basic as helping reservists or guardsmen realize they are veterans too.

"I can't tell you how many times I run into Reserve and Guard individuals and they tell me, 'I'm Reserve. I'm not a veteran. I don't have the same benefits as somebody who's active duty'," said Mark Brown, VA's director of environmental agents services. "That's not true." Reservists and guardsmen have the access to benefits as anyone who ever has been activated, he said.

Those benefits include programs to meet the many varying needs of veterans, especially those returning from combat. The benefits cover everything from readjustment and vocational rehabilitation programs to substance abuse and sexual trauma programs and programs to handle post-deployment stress and post- traumatic stress disorder.

One such benefit is a program that offers free health care with no co-pays for two years after separation if a veteran has served in a combat zone, no questions asked. It's called "Special VA Health Care Eligibility for Veterans Who Serve In Combat Theaters."

This program was a shocker for Marine 1st Lt. Dustin Ferrell attached to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.

He said "the two-year thing," really stood out as something that would be very important to him as he is waiting to be medically retired. He was wounded south of Nasiriyah, Iraq.

"I think there are a lot of programs out there, but people aren't aware of them," Ferrell said. "I'm DoD. I've gone through some of those processes, so I knew some of the information."

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Related Sites:
Coalition to Salute America's Heroes
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA Health Benefits and Services

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Wounded Veterans Briefed on Available Services
Heroes, Families Welcomed to 'Road to Recovery' Conference
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