Veterans in Georgia’s 1st District have an advocate in their congressman. During Monday’s annual Veterans Services Forum at Armstrong Atlantic State University Center, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., urged veterans having problems with their disability claims through the Department of Veterans Affairs to contact his office for assistance.
“There are over 776,000 veterans in the state of Georgia,” said Kingston, who noted Operation Desert Storm and Vietnam-era veterans represent the greatest number of Georgia’s veterans. “In Washington, veterans’ budget is one of the largest ... with $7.6 billion for long-term care (alone). One of the goals of this panel here today is to reduce the backlog of claims.”
Trish DePriest, case-work manager for Kingston’s office, helped to handle assistance requests at the forum. Kingston’s press secretary, Tim Wessinger, described DePriest as a veteran at helping veterans, noting she has been assisting veterans in the 1st District for more than 25 years.
The event’s panel consisted of Atlanta VA Regional Office Director Al Bocchiccio and Veteran Service Center Manager Doug Chapman. Also in attendance were representatives from the VA Central Office, the Philadelphia VA Pension Management Center, Charleston VA Medical Center, Dublin VA Medical Center and Lake City VA Medical Center. Several groups and organizations — including Honor Flight Savannah, the U.S. Army Reserve, TRICARE, Georgia Department of Community Affairs and Disabled American Veterans — also maintained a presence at the forum, as did the Marine Corps League and the U.S. Army.
According to military.com, the average wait time for VA compensation claims is about 273 days. Bocchiccio said that the wait time in Georgia is 320 days. He said the reasons for the longer wait time are many, including the large number of veterans in the state.
“Claims were up by 28 percent in (fiscal year) 2011,” said Bocchiccio, suggesting the number of military installations in the state played a role in the number of claims. “Here (at this forum), we answer general questions about VA benefits and check the status of claims. I take the names, (VA) file number and phone number, and someone will call them back with an answer. Last year, we responded to 50 or 60 inquiries. We called every one of them back with the status of their claim and what else was needed by the VA.”
Bill Cathcart, civilian aid to the Secretary of the Army, welcomed veterans and participates to the forum, introducing AASU President Linda Bleicken and then Kingston, who he called a long-time supporter of veterans and the military. In addition to reducing claims backlog, Kingston said another goal of the veterans’ forum was to ensure veterans are placed in good jobs.
He pointed out that more than half of sequestration cuts came out of defense spending, but he and other congressional leaders are working to ensure none of the cuts affected national security by shortchanging funds for training or deployments. He also said he wants to ensure as few cuts as possible are made to veterans programs.
Following his opening remarks, Kingston invited veterans to ask the panel specific, direct questions. Many questions were, in fact, statements by veterans, commending Kingston for his support. Some veterans simply vented about their experiences in dealing with the VA.
A former reservist told the panel he was trying to file a disability claim for an injury sustained on active duty in Iraq. He learned his military records have been lost, which has delayed his claim. Several veterans nodded, suggesting missing records was an issue for them, too.
“There is a problem where a whole lot of records have disappeared,” Kingston responded, turning to the VA panel for an answer.
Bocchiccio agreed, explaining the VA is working with veterans to reconstruct their lost service and medical records. He asked the former reservist to see him after the question-and-answer session so he could get his information and assist him.