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Discharged and dishonored:
Shortchanging America's veterans

CHRIS ADAMS and ALISON YOUNG
Knight Ridder

Jan 14, 2006



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TRAINING VARIES: More Training Required!

VA regulatory files, obtained after Knight Ridder's lawsuit, reveal that the agency has done little in decades to determine the adequacy of the training provided by veterans groups or to check the quality of the claims prepared by their officers. Only rarely does the VA suspend or revoke a service officer's accreditation. When it does happen, it's generally the result of criminal charges rather than incompetence.

"What we do is take it on the word of the service organization that the individual has had sufficient training," said Martin Sendek of the VA's general counsel's office. Listen to Gerry Corwin He tells how he fought for his country - and then battled the VA.

That training, however, varies widely, according to a Knight Ridder survey of 13 of the largest veterans groups and all 50 state veterans departments. At one end of the spectrum is Disabled American Veterans, which has full-time paid national service officers and a 16-month training and testing program that's so regimented that it qualifies for 10 hours of college credit.

Groups such as American Ex-Prisoners of War and Catholic War Veterans rely largely on part-time volunteers who aren't required to complete any courses or pass any tests. "We don't get paid, so we're not going to be that strict with these people," said Doris Jenks, the national training director for American Ex-Prisoners of War.

Nonprofits generally have less stringent requirements for service officers than those working for the 33 state veterans agencies that responded to the survey.

Just 62 percent of nonprofits and 73 percent of the state agencies require continuing education for all service officers, something experts consider crucial given the VA's constantly changing rules. Only 38 percent of nonprofits and 67 percent of states require a test before recommending that the VA accredit a representative. And once accredited, few service officers are ever tested to ensure their competence: While 27 percent of the states require later testing, only one nonprofit, Disabled American Veterans, had that requirement.

VA officials bristled at suggestions that their oversight of accredited service officers is lax and said they're unaware of any systemic problems. Retired Vice Adm. Daniel Cooper, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said the VA fixes any mistakes that service officers might make. If anything needs to be done to make an application complete, Cooper said, "we do it."

General counsel Tim McClain noted that veterans have extensive appeal rights. "There are a lot of checks and balances in the system," he said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, however, has repeatedly ruled that veterans are out of luck when they've been steered wrong by VA-accredited service officers.

Part One : Part Two : Part three : Park Four : Part Five :
Part Six : Part Seven : Part Eight : Part Nine : Part 10


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