For veterans across the U.S., Norman foundation a VA benefits lifeline

For veterans across the U.S., Norman foundation a VA benefits lifeline

More than 40 years after his service in the Vietnam War, Oklahoma Marine Corps veteran Allen Benton still couldn’t access Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to keep him from constantly living on the brink of homelessness.

From 2004 to 2016 in Tulsa, he survived in a two-bedroom, slate-blue house collapsing from a termite infestation. His heater once malfunctioned and started a fire. He stayed in the house until it was condemned. It was all he could afford.

“I wasn’t living,” he said. “I was existing.”

Allen Benton, client and volunteer at the Dale K. Graham Veterans Foundation, speaks to a client Thursday at the organization's office in Norman. Benton, who was on the verge of homelessness after returning from Vietnam, was able to get services from the foundation in obtaining 100% of his VA benefits.

But one day, while Benton worked at a boating supply store after moving to Oklahoma City, a woman walked up to him, prayed for him, and gave him the phone number for the Dale K. Graham Veterans Foundation, a veterans’ service organization in Norman that could help him file a claim to obtain healthcare and disability compensation for wartime injuries.

In 2020, Benton became one of about 100,000 veterans across the nation the foundation has assisted in filing those claims through the years. And on Monday, at an event in Moore, volunteers hope hundreds of veterans in need of similar assistance will take advantage of the organization’s free services.

“The foundation gave me hope,” Benton said. “It’s like being on the battlefield, and somebody picks you up and carries you. That’s what it’s like.”

Allen Benton works at the Dale K. Graham Veterans Foundation office in Norman on Thursday.

Claims process leaves veterans ‘suffering’

Oklahoma has more than 330,000 veterans, many of whom are eligible for veterans benefits including healthcare and disability compensation. And like veterans across the nation, many have struggled to obtain those benefits because of lengthy backlogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Personnel Records Center, said Jon Foti, the foundation’s CEO.

Veterans who transition out of the military have to file a claim before they’re given their VA benefits, and that’s where the foundation steps in. It has filed more than 25,000 claims in the last five years, said Graham, the organization’s founder, who started helping fellow veterans in 1989.

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