Did you know that you can work with Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) to get help with VA claims, taking advantage of your benefits, and transition assistance? Many don’t realize to what extent these agencies can help and depending on your state, there may be hundreds of organizations waiting to help.
What Is A Veterans Service Organization?
There are so many VSOs that it’s hard to narrow down what they do to a single mission statement, but in general a VSO exists as a “partnership agency” to help service members in a variety of ways including claims and benefits, but depending on the agency there may be lobbyist or other political work on behalf of the VSO’s members, plus scholarships, training, counseling, and related programs. A VSO exists to help its’ members and to raise awareness about the issues they address.
Are VSOs Affiliated With The Department of Veterans Affairs?
VSOs are usually private organizations, but in directory listings by state you’ll find the state-level VA offices are commonly listed alongside private groups. VSOs are not created by or endorsed by the federal government, but many nationwide agencies are federally chartered. That means, according to the VA official site, that the VSO is “recognized or approved by the VA Secretary for purposes of preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims under laws administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.” The VA official site reminds visitors that a federal charter is not a VA endorsement.
What Can A VSO Help Me Do?
VSO assistance will vary depending on the agency, but in general these agencies may offer claims assistance with VA benefits including education, home loan information, medical claims, career and transition assistance, job training, even substance abuse counseling or referrals to qualified counselors. No two VSOs are exactly the same or offer the same type of services.
What Kind Of Programs DO VSOs Offer?
Each Veterans Service Organization will have its’ own focus. For example, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Of America (IAVA) offer help with disability claims, employment and housing services, financial help for qualifying veterans, transition assistance from military to civilian life, even referrals to mental health providers.
Another agency, The Order Of The Purple Heart USA, offers the usual VA claims help, but also administers programs to help homeless veterans, plus outreach to vets living in rural areas who may not have the same access to VSOs or VA offices as those in large cities.
What Are Some Examples Of VSOs?
VSO groups include AMVETS (American Veterans), VFW (Veterans Of Foreign Wars), DAV (Disabled American Veterans), The African American Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Association, The American Legion, and many others. As you can see from the diversity of the tiny portion of VSO examples listed here, the emphasis and outreach differs greatly depending on the focus of the organization.
Where Can I Find A VSO To Help Me?
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a directory of VSOs at its’ official site, which includes both federally-chartered organizations and non-chartered groups alike. The existence of non-chartered groups does not imply that such groups could not or were denied a federal charter and should be viewed as less helpful. However, organizations without a charter are not, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, permitted “to represent Veterans before the Department in their claims for VA benefits”. Some non-chartered service providers offer claims agent and lawyer services, which may require a fee.
There is a searchable database of VSOs at the VA’s e-Benefits site, which allows visitors to search by city, state, zip code, and/or organization name. It may be helpful to do some preliminary research on VSOs with causes and focus directly relevant to you; the search results for the State of California return more than a thousand results alone.
Why Use A VSO?
There are many reasons why a transitioning service member might need help getting the most out of her military benefits. There are so many details, forms, and program changes to be mindful of that it can seem quite overwhelming. That’s especially true for military members who leave the service sooner than expected due to medical issues, policy changes, early retirement or other factors.
A VSO can help in such a wide range of ways that some feel compelled to at least research the ways these organizations can smooth a transition. Some veterans don’t feel the need to get this kind of help; others may feel so lost by all the paperwork that it takes an experienced guiding hand to get everything properly submitted to the VA, to the state education assistance bureau, etc. VSOs exist to help facilitate these things and much more, depending on the organization.
Why Use A Federally-Chartered VSO?
There is nothing wrong with using a non-chartered Veterans Service Organization that you know and trust for services that don’t involve official representation on your behalf with the VA.
When considering your options in this area, it’s good to be mindful of the disclaimer visitors are required to acknowledge when using the VA e-Benefits searchable database of VSOs:
“I understand that if I choose a VSO, any one of their VA-accredited representatives can help me with my claim. I also understand that, by law, VSOs and VSO representatives cannot charge a fee for representing me in my claims for benefits. VSOs and VSO representatives can operate at the national, regional, state, or local level.”
A VA-accredited/federally chartered VSO cannot charge you a fee for helping you claim your benefits. Federal regulations aside, this is also likely due in part to the fact that an applicant can simply claim those benefits without any assistance at all (and no cost).
However, there are VSO-like services that DO cost money, but these are normally associated with claims agent and/or lawyer services (as mentioned above) which are not the same thing as a simple application for benefits. Representation in that sense does cost money, and goes above and beyond the application process. Such “for pay” services are not created or regulated by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Do I Need Any Special Forms To Be Represented By A VSO?
The Department of Veterans Affairs requires those who wish to be represented by a specific Veterans Service Organization to submit VA Form 21-22, which will need to be filled out and submitted by the VSO you wish to represent you.
VA Form 21-22 is not a “blanket” form that requires a signature only, it requires the applicant’s privacy act data (including Social Security Number and insurance numbers) AND acts as a limited power of attorney for the specific information and actions you are requesting the VSO perform on your behalf.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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