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.”
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.”
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.
“People come here from all 50 states,” Graham said. “I’ve had them from China. I’ve had them from Australia and the Philippines. I even get them from New York City. I’ve had people from Boston. People fly down here.
“We’re going to try to take this nationwide. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. We’re actually pretty good at what we do.”
The foundation acts as veterans’ power-of-attorney during the process, which can take months to complete. The Veterans Benefits Administration, a division of VA that serves more than 5.2 million veterans and their family members, has more than 500,000 pending claims, according to July data from the agency. The administration has about 185,000 claims that were filed more than 125 days ago.
The National Personnel Records Center, where some veterans have to request copies of their military service records before filing claims, has its own backlog that can keep veterans from moving forward with the process.
“Because of this inability to access the VA claims process, many veterans — in lieu of treatment — have just been suffering,” Foti said.
In spite of the backlogs, volunteers at the foundation process an average of about 3,000 claims annually, and about 90% of people who file claims receive the benefits they need, Foti said. Claims filed by surviving spouses of service members for dependency and indemnity compensation are included in those figures.
Graham attributes the high success rate to his evidence-based claims system. The foundation sends veterans to medical providers who examine their health issues and document how their military service may have caused them.
“You’re changing lives,” Graham said. “That’s the key. With what we’re doing here, there’s no place in the United States doing this — not like we do it. No place. It’s up-and-coming, and it’s great.”
Monday event helps vets start process
The number of veterans the organization could help dropped during the pandemic, a trend the organization hopes to reverse soon.
In 2020, as coronavirus lockdowns were imposed across the nation, volunteers had difficulty contacting veterans, especially those without internet access. The organization hopes to help some hard-to-reach veterans with an event on Monday, where volunteers will help new clients start the claims process.
The organization hosted its first client intake event July 12, and more than 200 veterans attended, Foti said. He hopes even more will show up between 9 a.m. and noon Monday at the Moore Norman Tech Center, 13301 S Pennsylvania Ave.
Those who attend should bring certain documents, including: a DD-214 form, which is a military discharge document; recent VA claims letters; and, if available, a signed VA Form 0966, which is used during the claims process.
‘I was going to help people’
Graham, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, spent about two years in active duty with the 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion in the 3rd Marine Division. He was discharged in 1967.
Graham struggled with his mental health after the war, so he joined a program helping veterans transition back into civilian life.
“I’m in this class with about 13 people, and I realized, ‘Hell, I wasn’t the only one,'” he said. “Everybody in there was messed up. I decided, when I was able to, that I was going to help people. That’s what I’ve done.”
In 1989, he started helping veterans file their claims by setting up a shop in a barn. He named the shop “Veterans Corner.”
The scene there was different from the organization’s current home. It’s an office in Norman, 1268 N Interstate Drive, filled with desks that are stacked with papers and computers. Flags from different military branches hang on the wall.
‘The biggest thing I do is give people hope’
Helping veterans obtain their benefits is a gratifying experience, Graham said.
“There’s people in Oklahoma that’s starving to death, and we can change them a little bit. We can improve their lives,” Graham said. “You take these folks, and they ain’t got nothing. And when you get through, they got a little ‘walkin’ around’ money.
“I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m helping people. The biggest thing I do is I give people hope.”
Benton, who lived for years in a ramshackle Tulsa house, was just one of the veterans whose life was turned around by the organization. He started his claims process in February 2020, and in November, he learned that his compensation had been approved.
He’s put that money to use. In April of this year, he bought a new home in Yukon. The house is painted white and surrounded by lush grass and trees. In front is a smooth concrete driveway, where he parks his 2021 Kia Seltos.
It’s a far cry from the living situation he knew in the years after he returned from Vietnam.
“I felt like, for almost 20 years, that I was just right there on the edge of being homeless,” Benton said.
Now, a few days each week, Benton drives to the foundation’s office to help other veterans. He dons a red Marine Corps hat and a shirt with the foundation’s logo embroidered on the front.
“It gives me something to look forward to,” he said. “You smile at somebody that comes through the door, one of the vets or their surviving spouse. ‘How can I help you?’ And they turn that smile on, they say, ‘Man, somebody cares.’ And that’s worth a million bucks.”