September 10, 2015
As VA was wrapping up its #VASummerOfService earlier this month, last week VBA’s Benefits Assistance Service (BAS) outreach team was doing what it does every season—serving you and your dependents and families! As one of VBA’s social media administrators, I trekked along with them on Sept. 10 and 11 to Richmond, Va., to see them in action for the benefits fair at the Holmes-McGuire VA Medical Center, and then the next day to talk with Veterans and Servicemembers in attendance at NASCAR’s Richmond International Raceway.
NASCAR’s RIR pace car, parked outside the Holmes-McGuire VA Medical Center
Richmond is just a quick two-hour drive from our office in downtown Washington, D.C. On Thursday the 10th, we met at the VAMC where, in short time, a group of Xfinity Cup NASCAR drivers were scheduled to meet and greet. As soon as it showed up, Veterans and Servicemembers started taking “selfies” in front of the RIR pace car—a wild-liveried Toyota Camry.
Inside, VBA’s BAS outreach team had set up its booth nearest the front of the room, next to the Veterans Service Organization tables. I was surprised to see—even inside the VAMC—how a steady stream of Veterans and dependents of all ages stopped by the booth to talk VA benefits. They talked compensation, education, insurance, vocational rehabilitation and more. We even ran out of the popular Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors handbook, though our later-that-day resupply ensured we’d be rockin’ for the rest of the weekend.
BAS’ outreach team talking benefits to a Veteran at Holmes-McGuire VAMC
By 10:30 a.m., the first driver—19-year old Chase Elliot—showed up. Since he was early, the VAMC’s public affairs officer led him on a tour of the hospital. I was in basic training when I was his age, and in Iraq not much later, so it was refreshing to see a rising star—and later, his companions—who had “never done anything like this before” overcome their nervousness and carry themselves with the maturity and ease of someone twice their age. And the Veterans loved it, too, as evidenced by the smiles and laughter beaming down the halls.
September 11, 2015
NASCAR Xfinity Cup driver Chase Elliot signing an autograph and posing for a photo for a Veteran at Holmes-McGuire VA Medical Center
The next day—9/11—began bright and early at Richmond International Raceway, where we met the Mobile Vet Center (MVC) outside the grandstands. There, we set up the booth and tables and laptops, and then opened shop for race fan passers-by.
Throughout the day, I walked in and around the MVC (outside the stands), pit lane and anywhere I could get to capture the ways VA was reaching and interacting with Veterans.
“NASCAR is the most-watched sport in the country,” said Rob Reynolds, director for VBA’s Benefits Assistance Service, “and about 40 percent of its fans are Servicemembers and Veterans. That’s huge. This is just one thing we’re doing to reach a larger audience, to bring VA benefits to more Veterans.”
NASCAR Xfinity Cup drivers signing autographs for Veterans at Holmes-McGuire VA Medical Center
Perhaps my favorite part of the weekend was watching how VBA’s BAS outreach team interacted with Vets.
At one point, I caught the tail end of a conversation between an older gentleman and Toni. I looked down at the table to see a benefits booklet thoughtfully dog-eared and stickied with several multi-colored sticky notes—highlighting every benefit in the book that he—AND his recently separated son may be eligible for. Later on, Jeremy was explaining the transition process—and how to switch your Servicemembers Group Life Insurance to Veterans Group Life Insurance—to a career Army soldier who would soon be retiring. Still later, inside the MVC, I saw Allison leading a Veteran through the eBenefits sign-up process, and in another corner, Jason was doing the same with another Vet on a different laptop, each of them playfully ribbing the other about which branch of service was better (the answer is Army, btw).
The flag flies half staff at RIR on 9/11 – NEVER FORGET
It’s then I realized that these kinds of interactions give a face to the Department of Veterans Affairs. These are my co-workers, yes, but THIS is MY VA: Toni, the NCO, squaring away her soldiers and leading by patient example; Jeremy looking out for his battle buddies; Jason, the Cavalry CO, holding his scouts accountable and encouraging them to do the right thing, but in making them laugh at the same time, thereby earning their respect and trust. The mentality of these interactions is familiar to us; they are what we remember—and miss!—and carry with us after serving. It’s very personal, and that’s what an outreach event is all about, whether it’s outside a NASCAR race, a blood drive, or even an empty parking lot in a rural town.
It’s where we connect to you and serve you—wherever you are.