Hello Invisible Reader. Today I'd like to share something with you. My friend, Jim Strickland, who writes a regular column for VA Watchdog dot Org published a terrific article today. It covers all the reasons why you should file a do it yourself claim. It also lays out all the reasons why he believes the National Service Organizations are failing in their mission to help Veterans with their claims. I'll spare you my own rhetoric today and leave you to read Jim's piece.
Until the next time ....
VETERANS Q&A with JIM STRICKLAND, #11 for 2010
Veterans' Advocate Jim Strickland answers questions from VA Watchdog dot Org readers.
Veterans' Advocate Jim Strickland provides regular columns for VA Watchdog dot Org. If you would like to contact Jim about his columns, you can email him here... The archive of Jim's articles is here... To find an answer to a specific VA benefits question, use the VA Watchdog search engine... click here...
Be sure to use Jim's: "A to Z GUIDE OF VETERANS DISABILITY COMPENSATION BENEFITS" click here...
And, for answers to questions and great advice, go to Jim's discussion board, "STRAIGHT TALK FOR MILITARY VETERANS" click here...
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by Jim Strickland
NOTE: Letters in my Q&A columns are reprinted just as they come to me. Spelling and grammar are left as is and only small corrections are made to improve readability, ensure anonymity or delete expletives that may offend some readers. This is not legal advice. You should always seek the advice of an attorney who is qualified in Veterans' law before you make any decisions about your own benefits.
I served for 7 years active in the U.S. Army Infantry with the 101st Airborne and 1st ID. I did two tours in Yugoslavia/Kosovo/FYROM and my last as an Infantry Squad Leader during 14 months in Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Our unit, Task Force 2-2, participated in several battles to include Fallujah '04. My time began in early 1998 and ended in late-mid 2005 when my physical injuries caught up to me. There's more to it than that, but then again there always is...
I am not writing you to request help with a claim or anything like that, the preamble was just to give you some background. As you may have already noticed I am an NSO with DAV, and quite good at what I do. Primarily, because I value the advice, and assistance I was given when I came home. I wanted to help those who were unable to fight for themselves, or otherwise articulate for themselves what needed to be done in order to win their case. I also feel as though the VA does a better job when they know "someone is watching" and will take them to task on every nuance in regulation, statute, and Court precedent they misapply or all-together disregard.
I am pretty fresh compared to someone who has been in this system for 30+ years, and truthfully only see the strife your generation has been through when I review a claims file and see all the B.S. in the decision making process, or the hosing a vet would receive by a VA psych or other examiner. Like some of you however, I was "nobody" to VA when I came home in 2005, and was likened to a "gold-digger" for wanting help, then miraculously 6 months later we (OIF/OEF) were all the new priority. Like a cheap date right? Yep, I thought so too.
In any event, my inquiry is more or less relating to the perceived loathing of organizations such as mine, where the majority of us spend 60+ hours a week counseling, advising, litigating, and otherwise providing representation for claimants all the way to BVA. Even then we will select cases to advance pro-bono to CAVC.
I am not saying all VSO's have the same level of competence or training as others (this is obvious), or that even if there was similarity, it remains there will always be those who are lazy and do not deserve to act in a representative capacity. So I did in fact take about 45 mins to write this email, to include 4 crashes from my Internet Browser where I hasd to restart in various places. I always stood fast in the belief that no one man could win a war. Maybe you could enlighten me as to why there is a disconnect between "us". It seems a shame that even now, not all veterans stick together for the common good of all and for the future of veterans yet to come.
What I'm asking might seem naive, and it probably is, however, it's a question worth asking at least in my view. Thanks for any reply. If I receive none, I wont bother you again.
Thank you for your service sir. And thanks for your continuing service and your dedication to serving your brothers and sisters in arms.
I'm not sure if you're speaking of a disconnect between the VSO industry and veterans in general or if you only refer to my consistently dour outlook at National Service Organizations (NSO's).
I can only answer for myself in any case. There are quite a few who disagree with me.
My position is fairly simple. I would like to see the NSO's act in a professional manner by providing a standard of practice that all their associated Veterans Service Officers (VSO's) must meet. Let's define the VSO as anyone who is associated with any NSO and purports to represent veterans to the VA in any way. This would include volunteer Post Service Officers as well as well paid National Service Officers. I include state and county VSO's in this mix.
In my 'perfect world' scenario, the standard of practice that all must meet would consist of a minimum level of education with annual continuing education requirements and re-certification. This step would better ensure that any veteran located in any area of the United States would be provided a representative that had proven skills.
This is one of the reasons for my support of lawyers as representatives. There are no volunteers who hang out a shingle and begin to practice law. They must complete an accepted course of education and then pass one of the most challenging exams ever; The Bar examination. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_examination This assures the client that he or she will be represented by a person who possesses some known and measured set of skills.
There is no such standard today for VSO's and the hapless veteran depends on the luck of the draw as to the quality of the representation he or she may obtain. I may be lucky to have you in my corner and I may be so unlucky as to have a local good-ol-boy volunteer who likes the title and notoriety that comes with the job.
I'd ask for a commitment to a high standard of customer service. Most NSO's have fallen below the level of customer service that even the VA itself offers. In a word, the customer service offered by all of the NSO's may be summed up as "arrogant". Veterans complain to me (and I know this feeling) that, "I'm treated like a criminal who is only there to beg for money." That's awful when the veteran is talking about the VA and totally unacceptable when it's said about a VSO.
I would ask that all NSO's require their VSO's to apply a few basic and easy rules and concepts that aren't in force today.
(1) Courtesy and respect, beginning to end. No matter what issues the veteran may have, this individual has taken the oath and worn the uniform and has earned a degree of respect. If the veteran is angry or abusive, that may be a symptom of his or her problem and it isn't OK for the VSO to return such emotions. The veteran may be very sick, financially stressed and have significant family and work problems. The VSO must be aware of that and act accordingly as a professional.
(2) Informed approval of the process. The veteran should be told the truth in advance of exactly how the process works. Inform the veteran what steps are being taken for him and approximately how long each step will take. Don't use hopeful numbers...if the veteran isn't likely to see any results for 8 months, use that number. Many complaints that land in my mailbag are from veterans who clearly have no clue of what is occurring with their claim.
(3) Return phone calls within 48 hours. I believe that most veteran inquiries are of a "What's happening to my claim?" variety. This could be resolved in large part by close attention to (2). Those veterans will make many calls to the VSO's office as well as the VA toll free number. The VSO must reply promptly and reassure that veteran that the delays are routine and not to worry. The job description of the VSO should include some knowledge of TLC and hand-holding as required.
(4) Use email effectively. Positive, informative communication to the veteran speaks volumes and tells the veteran he or she isn't lost in the jumble of the tens of thousands of others who are waiting. The issues of security and privacy are no longer acceptable as reasons to not use email to communicate with the customer. Much like making purchases on-line with a credit card today, the security of the Internet is most often more stringent than a written transaction or a face to face meeting. A few brief words from the VSO will often satisfy the veteran that all is well.
(5) Offer realistic expectations. In accordance with (2) let the veteran know that their case is weak and likely to be problematic if that is how it appears to the VSO. I usually tell every veteran who completes their 526 that they are more likely than not going to face an appeal. The only exception ever is a presumptive claim where the evidence is 100% assured. I treat an appeal as an ordinary step in the process. Denial letters never surprise veterans who are following my DIY methods and I often hear, "Hey Jim...good news. I got my denial letter today just like you said. Now we can move on to DRO and get this done right." Veterans don't like surprises. It's up to the VSO to keep that from happening.
There you have it. I believe that strict compliance with those 5 easy rules would turn the NSO/VSO claims representation system around completely.
Beyond that, I don't delve into the other activities of the NSO's. I admire and respect the efforts of the DAV and their transportation efforts and would like to see that grow. PVA does a lot for the set of veterans they serve and each of the other of the dozens of NSO's that exist have a mission to address particular needs of their members.
All of that is fine but my focus is in the benefits arena. Unless and until I see positive steps that will ensure that our system of representatives is professional and of a consistent high quality, my barbs to the industry overall will continue.
Thanks very much for writing to me.
(For what it's worth...on a purely technical note...if you had 4 browser crashes while writing this and it took 45 minutes, you have a real problem with your computer. I haven't had a browser crash in so long I'd forgotten such things still happen. I have an inexpensive computer...less than $400.00...purchased off the shelf at Sam's Club and it performs flawlessly.
My 2 secrets to computer happiness? I use only Firefox as a web browser. I only use Gmail for communication. That's it. Each of those platforms are secure and stable. I have a few Firefox add-ons that have eliminated any risk of my ever seeing a virus of spyware or any other sort of malware.
Additionally, I use a small and efficient program called Ccleaner to scrub my drive every couple days to remove scraps of code that always get left behind. I do all the required Microsoft Vista updates like clockwork. I wouldn't use AOL, Yahoo or Hotmail services under any circumstances. I use Open Office for documents. All the stuff I'm using is free.
I like free.)
I am a Life Member of the Disabled American Veterans Organization (DAV) and a former National Service Officer Trainee (NSO). I was assigned to a local office and had continual conflict with the female supervisor who constantly accused me of taking too long to help the Veterans. I subsequently filed an EEOC complaint against the DAV for desperate treatment and hostile atmosphere.
The complaint was settled and it was agreed that I would resign and receive two month severance. When I resigned from that organization I had a claim for service connected disability pending with the VA in which the DAV is my representation. Since that time the DAV has not properly or professionally handled my claim for benefits.
When I call the DAV for the status of my claim, (which has been pending since August 2008) and leave messages for my NSO, my calls are never returned. I have written several letters to the National Commander (via Certified Mail) complaining of the negligent representation but my letters have never been answered. I believe the DAV is exacting retribution against me for my prior EEOC activity and has no intention of representing me properly as it is obligated to do.
Is there any recourse, legal or administrative remedy available to me in which I could file a complaint against the DAV? Are such organizations regulated or under the authority of any governing body? I have contacted the EEOC and they are not sure if I could file a subsequent complaint of reprisals since I am no longer an employee. However, I contend that as a member of the DAV it has an obligation to not discriminate or treat me desperately.
Your comments or recommendations are appreciated.
I'm afraid that in my experience, your treatment by DAV is routine. I'm not speaking to the issues of your employment by DAV, that's an employer/employee issue and I have no advice to offer there.
I'm only addressing your complaints of how they're handling your application to VA for disability benefits.
Your comment, "When I call the DAV for the status of my claim, and leave messages for my NSO, my calls are never returned" is the number one complaint I hear for every National Service Organization. I hear more about DAV because DAV is the largest of those groups.
I was also sold one of those Life Memberships years ago. It was hinted to me that if I became a life member that my claim would be given more attention. That was the last time I ever heard from that service officer, he stopped returning my phone calls.
You should also be aware that DAV doesn't have the faintest idea of the status of your claim. Day to day the VA itself doesn't know where your claim is, how could the DAV? Once a Service Officer assists you with completing any required paperwork and submits such to the VA, they won't normally see it again until it's completed.
The reality is that you have two ways to approach the process of gaining your earned disability compensation benefits. First, you may sit down with a Post or Veterans Service Officer, complete the paperwork required and the Service Officer will then have your papers sent to a National Service Officer at the VA Regional Offices.
The NSO will then hand your application paperwork over to the VA and they will put it in the very long line to be adjudicated.
Or you may complete the paperwork yourself in the comfort of your own home and mail it to the VA where it will enter the very long line to be adjudicated.
In either case, once you're sure VA has received your documents, then for the next year you should do nothing at all but wait. No telephone calls, no emails, no inquiries of any sort. You won't be told the truth about what's happening to your claim and you'll waste a lot of other peoples time...as well as wasting your own time.
If you're a reader of my stuff you would know that this is exactly the reason I am a big fan of the Do It Yourself (DIY) method of applying for benefits. The National Service Organizations don't want you to know this but VA is perfectly happy to work with veterans directly. Many of my contacts within the VA tell me that they are more likely to give veterans the benefit of the doubt if the veteran is handling his or her own claim.
Submitting your claim yourself isn't rocket science. If you have a few minutes to read through my A to Z Guide at http://jimstrickland912.com, you'll learn a few basic principles that apply to all claims. Once you have a handle on that you'll see that the rest is fairly simple. It's important to do it right the first time and the fact is that nobody cares as much about your claim as you do.
I'm sure that the National Service Organizations have been sued for malpractice in the past. I don't know of any of the cases though and I don't know any lawyers who have any experience in that arena.
The problem that must be faced when you speak of suing anyone is that you must prove damages. Providing really lousy customer service doesn't usually rise to the level of damaging you. I could probably refer you to any one of a number of lawyers who would review your case for its potential and maybe even open up a suit for you. I can also understand why each of these lawyers would require a hefty retainer from you in advance of any work beginning. I'd guess that you would need to shell out some $10,000.00 to get started.
To be honest, in the final analysis I doubt DAV is acting in any way to cause you harm. This is how DAV operates...particularly not returning phone calls or interacting with the worried veteran. Your experience is the norm for their service and you're just one of us, a member of the herd.
The best advice I can offer you is to do just what I did. Forget about your soured relationship with the DAV. Then, take control of your claim...I took the reins of all my claims and developed my own DIY method. VA was quick to respond positively and once I'd completed my DRO appeals I won all the benefits I'd earned.
I filed a claim for service connection for lower back condition in June 2000 with the VA. The VA denied my claim stating that my Service Medical Records (SMR) were "silent" for any history of injury to my back while in service.
I subsequently discovered that I could obtain a copy of my SMR and requested them from NPRC St. Louis. My SMR clearly show that I sustained injury to my back on three (3) separate occasions, (April 1968, October 1968 and January 1970) and received medical treatment. My VA medical records show a history of lower back pain. Because the time period for filing an appeal had elapsed, I field a new claim for my back condition in August 2008, and provided the VA with the medical evidence from my SMR. That claim is still pending and the VA has not scheduled me for an examination for this condition. I have submitted additional medical evidence to the VA from my private physician that shows my back condition has become more severe.
Will the VA will consider a claim that has been previously denied? And will I have to wait for the new decision and appeal the denial?
I contend that the VA caused "Clear and Unmistakable Error" (CUE) when it failed to properly review my SMR in 2001 which clearly show service connected injury to my back. Had that medical evidence been considered it is likely that a decision favorable to me would have been rendered as early as 2001 and I could have received medical treatment for my back from that time on. Such treatment could has precluded the deterioration of my back condition.
Your comments and information is appreciated.
You may have a case.
The CUE claim is by far the most challenging of all. I never touch these as I know that CUE is steeped in legal theory.
Please read the articles about CUE in my A to Z Guide at http://jimstrickland912.com
I'm referring you to a trusted lawyer. I'd appreciate it if you would offer me some feedback as to how pleased you are with the services they provide.