Navy veteran Rik Villarreal greets American Legion official Verna Jones on June 27 at the El Paso American Legion in El Paso, Texas. The American Legion is hosting crisis centers in different cities to help veterans get doctor's appointments and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Juan Carlos LLorca / AP)
EL PASO, TEXAS — A counselor at the local Veterans Affairs office looked at Rebecca King, a victim of domestic violence and abuse who was seeking help for depression, and told her she would not be able to see a psychologist. She looked too nice and put together for someone depressed, King was told.
Like others who’ve failed to receive help at troubled VA offices, the Army veteran then gave up.
“I have a son, I’m his only support system, I have to keep it together” King recalled telling the VA office in El Paso, trying to explain why she didn’t look disheveled.
She is now among nearly 1,800 people who have turned to the American Legion, which has held town-hall meetings and opened temporary crisis centers in Phoenix, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and El Paso. Patients can gain access to health benefits, schedule doctor’s appointments, enroll in the VA and even get back pay.
The centers come in the wake of the VA scandal that brought to light long wait times and false record-keeping among other things, and are being established in towns where the VA audit showed wait times were longer. Between now and October, crisis centers will come to Fort Collins, Colorado; Saint Louis, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. They also plan to visit Clarksburg, West Virginia; White City, Oregon and Harlingen, Texas.
Jessica Jacobsen, deputy director of the VA’s regional public affairs office in Dallas, said the VA will use community partners, such as the American Legion, to help “accelerate access and get veterans off wait lists and into clinics.”
“This is an example of this type of partnership and how it is successful,” Jacobsen said, noting the VA is helping the Legion with the crisis centers, providing them with counselors, nurses, schedulers and benefits rates.
But the VA shouldn’t view getting veterans access to benefits and doctors as out of the ordinary, says Verna Jones, director of the American Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division.
“This is not extra, this is what is supposed to be happening,” she said.
On the first day the Legion’s crisis center team arrives in a town, they typically hold a town-hall meeting, where they take questions from veterans — sometimes, the head of the local VA is there to answer as well. In the days following, veterans come to the Legion post and talk to counselors, who assess the best way to tackle a given problem, be it benefits, retroactive payment, scheduling a doctor’s appointment or enrolling a veteran in the VA’s system for the first time.
During the center’s three days in El Paso, 74 veterans were told they are eligible to more than $461,000 in retroactive payments for uncollected benefits, American Legion Post 58 commander Joe Ontiveros said.
King divorced her husband, who was also in the military, after years of abuse and moved back to El Paso in 2012. She got by until January, when she learned her ex-husband wanted to take their son for the summer.
“I started having nightmares, started feeling depressed,” she said. A counselor at the VA dismissed her claims, saying a depressed person would not be well-dressed and with a nice hairdo.
“I told her I didn’t want to look how I’d been looking,” King said. The counselor said that in order to prescribe medication, King would have to be evaluated by a doctor.
“She said they would schedule an appointment, but I was never called back,” she said. “I’ve been calling and calling but nothing.”
After talking with the American Legion representatives at the El Paso crisis center, King will get help — an appointment with a psychologist that had yet to be scheduled as of Friday. “I believe this will be helpful,” she said.
Navy veteran Rik Villarreal had given up on the VA as well. Twenty years after a torpedo nearly crushed his hand, he lives with chronic pain. When the VA closed his case, the document also acknowledged he had Complex Regional Pain Syndrome — the same diagnosis he received from a private neurologist to which the VA had sent him.
“I appealed, but they didn’t return my emails. They tire you out, you get to a point where you say: ‘The VA wins.’ That’s when you give up,” he said.
His mother encouraged him to go to the El Paso crisis center — “Mijo, you gotta get over there,” he said she told him — where he sat with an American Legion attorney who told the VA representatives to reopen his case.
When told he might be due some retroactive payment, Villarreal shrugged it off: “I don’t want money. All I want is treatment for the pain.”