Army Veteran George Werhonig needed a person to listen to his concerns to serve him. Ashley Hernandez, a Veteran services officer with the Montana Veterans Affairs Division, turned out to be that person.
“Ashley was the first person that actually listened to me since 1984,” said Werhonig, who served in Vietnam. He was one of more than 250 Veterans, family, caregivers and survivors from across the Big Sky Country to receive assistance during a unique virtual Veterans Experience Action Center (V-VEAC) event Aug. 17-19.
“George needed someone with that listening ear,” Hernandez said of Werhonig, whom she ably assisted during the VA Montana V-VEAC. “Someone to listen and just help.”
Virtual Veterans Experience Action Centers (V-VEACs)
V-VEACs are a collaboration between to include representation from Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, National Cemetery Administration, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, state departments of Veterans affairs and community partners working together to offer one-on-one personalized assistance for: VA benefits, VA health care, crisis resources, memorial affairs, community services and more. Veterans, service members, caregivers and survivors make an appointment online. They select the optimal time and day, to fit within their availability. At the end of each appointment, VA gathers feedback from those served. Over 95% of participants said they would recommend this event to their fellow Veterans and loved ones. This virtual approach has emerged as an effective alternative to traditional in-person, outreach events during the time of COVID.
In highly rural Montana – the fourth largest state by area and seventh least populated – Veterans from every corner of the state received service. We were able to reach underserved Veterans to include 47 Women Veterans and 14 Native American Veterans. Veterans from World War II up to the present day received assistance.
“That’s something we (Veteran service organizations) talked about,” Hernandez said. “We were able to connect with and help people who we might not otherwise have reached.”
At the August event, the team of VSOs from the Montana Veterans Affairs Division (MVAD) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) initiated the action each day by calling registrants at their appointment time. VSOs engaged with individuals to provide all services available within their scope and purview. Individuals needing follow-on assistance connected to a live agent with the appropriate organization.
The VA Montana Health Care System team assisted 60 individuals with a wide array of needs. This included getting 21 Veterans enrolled in VA health care. Event workers also assisted a dozen others who sought assistance with appointments or had other general health care questions. In the week leading up to the event several registrants indicated they were homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless. VHA staff connected with these Veterans to offer assistance ahead of the actual event.
Veterans helping Veterans
Peer-to-Peer support is a recent addition to the V-VEAC events. In Montana, 25 Veterans were connected to either the Veterans Navigation Network or to Team Red, White & Blue. The Board of Veterans Appeals and National Cemetery Administration combined to provide 15 individuals with services. This ranged from gaining information on the status of an appeal to learning more about pre-need eligibility for interment at a national cemetery.
In addition to manually registering 21 Veterans without Internet access for the event, community partner United Way of Yellowstone County provided direct community services to individuals. They served as the conduit to Montana Legal Services Association for five Veterans seeking pro bono legal services.
Felix Arenas, a Veteran who served in both the Army and the Navy, indicated he had struggled to make progress on a claim for service-connected disability benefits before speaking with a VSO and getting connected to Veterans Benefits Administration.
“I had already given up on this for a few years and through this event I have new hope and new life,” Arenas said. “A new shot at life.”