How To Help The Local Reps The VA Depends On

County veterans service officers perform a critical role for veterans, especially those living far from major population centers. Often working closely with small-town chapters of organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars, CVSOs are local, state-employed representatives whose purpose is to assist veterans in navigating the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Their responsibilities are defined by the individual states.

There is certainly merit in having state oversight of the CVSOs: each state has different benefits for veterans. However, the VA has not standardized how these officers should operate across the 3,143 counties in the U.S. This results in individual states dictating how a small town CVSO should conduct business with a federal entity. Creating more standardization across the board would help reduce strain on “big VA,” both serving veterans within their own communities and ensuring they receive the benefits they deserve.

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Standardization will streamline existing processes, clarifying the responsibilities of CVSOs and keeping them current on the latest legislation and benefits. Currently, the only training that exists for all CVSOs is “accreditation” through the VA, which teaches officers how to process disability claims, and the VA requires officers to do it only once.

Recertification and continuing education is not required by every state. Ohio requires recertification every five years, as do veterans organizations such as the American Legion. Other states, such as New York, do not require recertification. Standardizing training could include requiring refresher training for all CVSOs, which could even be offered in person, or online through the VA’s Learning University.

Some states are transparent about the training requirements, making them available online. California, for example, posts their entire training manual online — a great resource for new CVSOs, and a one-stop-shop for older VSOs to stay up-to-date. Yet even this website shows one of the pitfalls of not requiring recertification. A section of the training manual called “Women and Underserved Veterans” is not available online, noting that it will be handed out at in-person training. This means CVSOs already in the community may not be equipped to properly serve a significant constituency in the veteran community.

CVSOs find the lack of standardization frustrating. One veterans’ worker, who has worked in two states and rural, suburban, and urban areas, told me that a lack of clear, standard guidance has resulted in wide differences in the scope of care her patients received.

This lack of standardization poses significant problems for post-9/11 veterans returning to their communities. A CVSO accustomed to helping male Vietnam vets in their 60s may be ill-equipped to work with a female veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is not to say that CVSOs don’t want to help all veterans — it’s just that without VA direction, veterans service officers are not being trained to understand a new generation of veterans and their unique needs. For instance, a 25-year-old veteran is more likely to be asking about education benefits than a 65-year-old veteran.

Furthermore, in most places CVSOs primarily receive training in processing disability claims, yet are often required by state law to do much more. New York State law specifically details that CVSOs have a duty to help service members, veterans and their families about “educational training and retraining … health, medical and rehabilitation services and facilities … federal, state and local laws and regulations affording special rights and privileges … employment and re-employment services, and … other matters.”

To make matters worse, members of today’s military have many resources at their fingertips when they separate, but it’s often incredibly overwhelming. Transitioning service members are trying to change careers, and may be moving themselves and families across the country, all while doing their day jobs up until terminal leave. Many service members may still be trying to figure out exactly what they want to do upon separation, while some change their minds. Others may have “bad paper” discharges and be trying to navigate what benefits they are and aren’t eligible for.

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Texas, for instance, waives tuition through the Hazelwood Act at state educational institutions for Texas veterans who have no other educational benefits, such as those who received a general discharge under honorable conditions. A veteran eligible for this benefit might fall through the cracks if a CVSO is only focused on processing claims.

While many local VA Health Centers and Veterans Centers offer training about resources, many veterans may find themselves far away from the nearest one. A veteran in Oneonta, NY, for example, lives 90 minutes from the closest Vets Center in Albany, but only 30 minutes from the CVSO in Cooperstown. In the heart of the country, the distances can be even greater.

By establishing standard operating procedures for CVSOs, the VA could both inform veterans about what they can ask for assistance with, and help CVSOs better understand what they need to keep up to date on. Standardization can help reestablish trust between veterans and the VA through their most local connection. As the VA undergoes an overhaul to improve service, it should give a closer look at empowering small town CVSOs with better guidance to serve constantly-evolving populations of veterans in their own community.