Byline: Kaylea Berry/Reporter
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma – The Muscogee Nation Veterans Affairs Services Office, Veteran Affairs Office of Tribal Government Relations and the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs worked together and hosted a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Presumptive Conditions Campaign. The event aided 24 veterans in applying for benefits and services based on presumptive disabilities, conditions presumed to be military service related by the VA that can appear before or after being discharged from the military.
The Presumptive Conditions Campaign began in 2018 with nearly 30 tribal nations across the country interested in holding a presumptive event. However, covid hindered the program’s ability to go out to help service members and their families. This was the first in-person event since the pandemic. During the 2022 fiscal year, the campaign has worked with 24 tribal nations and has 6 more events already planned for 2023 and that number is expected to increase before January.
Veterans were required to submit their DD-214, medical records, dependent records if applicable and any other military documentation needed to support their time in service for their claim(s).
Veterans who have never filed are assigned to a Veterans Benefits Administration’s Regional Office service representative or with a state service officer. They help them to submit an intent to file if they do not have all their necessary paperwork or help them with filing the claim if they have the needed documents to proceed. The intent to file gives the veteran or spouse a one-year window to bring required documentation in to file the claim.
The presumptive events allow veterans to sit down with a VBA rep one-on-one and tell their story. Based off the information that is provided, the reps can connect service members’ disabilities with their actions
“The more information you provide them about what your role was in the military, what you did in the military, allows them to kind of look for those triggers for things that might be in your military records that they can use to help approve that claim,” said Culley.
VBA staff and advocates helped veterans and dependents with filling out paperwork for new, existing, and previously denied claims based on their records.
“The VBA regional office staff that are here have the ability to access their [service member] military records,” said Culley. “They have the ability to access their military medical records, VA medical records.”
“The only thing we don’t have the ability to access is tribal health records.”
However, representatives from tribal health information systems were on site so that medical release forms can be signed the same day, allowing service members to accomplish multiple tasks at the same location. Muskogee VA Regional Office staff were able to speed up the process by reviewing claims on the spot in an attempt to obtain same day results.
“We try as much as we can to approve the disability claim for a veteran or widow the same day, if at all possible,” said Mary Culley, Veteran Affairs Office of Tribal Government Relations Tribal Relations Specialist. “Every claim that we process today is going to be worked through the entire week.”
Same-day approval is not always possible, and claims can take days, weeks, months and even years to be approved.
“For today, it’s to try to figure out how to best address the needs of the veteran and the widow, the disability that they’re looking at, and how do we get that approved.”
Culley shared testimonies of how events, such as this one, have changed the lives of veterans and families. One veteran felt as though attending the event to get help was her last resort. She had previously filed a claim and was denied and was battling with mental health. Her husband was worried that if she was not able to be approved, he might lose her. It was not easy for her to talk about what she dealt with, but she was able to get her claim approved at 100% permanent disability.
Another testimony comes from a widow of a Vietnam veteran who’s claim had been originally denied, yet he passed away due to agent orange exposure. She had his claim looked at again 11 years later at a presumptive event and received back-pay because the claim was denied due to a glitch in the system.
The presumptive does not just help people with their claims, but also brings different agencies to one location where veterans can learn what services are available to them.
“Right now, we have a guy that’s got a housing issue and between the SSVF [Support Services for Veteran Families] and the Tribal HUD-VASH [Tribal Housing and Urban Development Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing program] they’re working together to see what they can do to make sure he stays in his house and that he gets the wrap-around services that he needs,” said Culley.
Representatives can help veterans with claims regarding a new law that passed on July 13, 2022. The new law regards the PACT Act which affects veterans from multiple generations. The PACT Act acknowledges health issues and disabilities resulting from burn pit and other toxic substances exposure. Veterans and beneficiaries from multiple generations are now able to file disability claims tied to issues from their exposure and receive VA healthcare. There is more information about the PACT Act on the VA’s website or by calling 800-698-2411. (https://www.va.gov/resources/the-pact-act-and-your-va-benefits/)
To stay up to date with information regarding Mvskoke veterans, follow the Muscogee Nation Veterans Affairs (https://www.facebook.com/MuscogeeVeterans) Facebook page, enroll with the VASO or call them at 918-732-7739.