What started out as a handful of veterans sharing tips has turned into a weekly meeting at Rock Hill’s College Park Baptist Church, where veterans receive help filing an array of benefit claims.
Every Wednesday morning, members of the Carolina Veterans Commission hold a workshop for dozens of former soldiers and their spouses, who go through binders of medical records and listen to the experiences of other former soldiers. The paperwork needed to file a claim can end up being more than an inch thick, members say, and take months or years to be approved by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
”We don’t fight the VA, we work with the VA,” said Les Murphy, president and a founder of the group. The originally Lancaster-based organization started out as a limited liability company in 2007, but gained non-profit status in 2010.
The department has accrued a backlog of thousands of claims in the last several years. Officials reported efforts in 2013 to catch up, and they hope to eliminate the backlog by 2015.
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Murphy said the commission’s purpose is to help veterans file complete and warranted claims, which includes providing proof of diagnoses for service-related injuries. Murphy, a former Marine, said his previous experience processing claims means that he and others that he trains at the CVC are especially suited to handle claims.
“We’re not going to throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks,” Murphy said of those hoping to file claims for non-service related disabilities. The commission also works to expedite claims for veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless or bankrupt.
The organization has worked closely with local veteran affairs offices to coordinate training and to provide better access to veteran care in the region.
“I support any effort that supports taking care of veterans,” said Joe Medlin, director of Veteran Affairs for York County. Medlin said several commission members are also clients at his office, which handles a variety of veteran-related services including filing benefit claims and transporting veterans to the VA hospital in Columbia and back.
Medlin also provides additional services such as employment advice, and his offices in Rock Hill and York serve as liaisons with local colleges and medical offices.
Cecil Battles, 50, a former Army combat medic, knows firsthand the emotional and psychological effects of combat. Battles was homeless for several years in Rock Hill after he lost his job and had a car accident.
He’s currently living with friends he found through the organization and is applying for housing. But he said it took him a while to deal with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms from combat he saw in Iraq and abroad.
He now works with the local commission to fill out benefit claims for others like himself. He credits commission for helping him get his life back on track.
“It’s so good to have friends,” said Battles. “I haven’t had friends since the military.”
Commission members serve as volunteers, and the weekly office space is donated by the church. The commission has focused on applying for grants to keep the organization going, but relies primarily on donations from its own members.