Without Help, Navigating Benefits Can Be Overwhelming
NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America’s troops where they live. We’re calling the project “Back at Base.” This story is Part 2 of a three-part series about veteran benefits (Part 1 / Part 3).
The latest data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show Indiana — which has the 35th highest number of veterans in the U.S. — receives $4,935 per veteran each year. If they received as much as Utah — which has the 35th highest return — Indiana vets would receive on average another $558. And if they received the national average of $6,088, that’s another $1,153.
Retired Brig. Gen. Jim Bauerele has spent years working to match veterans with their benefits.
“I think Indiana has neglected veterans,” he says. “I think veterans are uneducated as to what their benefits are, and there has been little effort undertaken to communicate and get that to veterans.”
Map: Average overall VA spending per veteran in 2013 in Indiana, by count
Source: NPR analysis of Department of Veterans Affairs data
Credit: Robert Benincasa and Alyson Hurt/NPR
Back in 2010, a VA survey found that nationwide fewer than half of veterans understood their benefits, whether it was medical care, college tuition or pension and disability payments.
There are all sorts of reasons why veterans in one area may not receive as many benefits as veterans in another. Veterans from different eras, such as Vietnam or Iraq, can receive different amounts. Older vets might receive more benefits.
VA applications are also notoriously difficult to complete. Vets don’t always get the help and guidance they need.
Bauerele says one reason for the poor showing in Indiana can be traced to what are called veterans service officers (VSOs). County-level VSOs are part of a system operating in 28 states, and they’re supposed to help vets get the benefits they’ve earned. Some VSOs operate on the state level, and veterans groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have their own VSOs, which operate in most states.
Some county-level VSOs in Indiana operate on a shoestring.
“Some counties have an officer who is part-time, works three days a week, part-time and doesn’t even have an office or a computer,” Bauerele says.
So depending on where they live, one vet might find an office with a full-time staff trained to file paperwork with the VA, while another might find a closed office, or a VSO who can’t navigate the system.
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