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Legion commander listens to veterans' disability concerns

The American Legion's national commander toured southeastern Connecticut Friday, visiting with veterans and listening to their concerns.

Jimmie L. Foster says he's traveling for the majority of his one-year term and he's hearing some of the same issues come up across the country. Among the most common is that many veterans are still waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to approve their disability claims.

More veterans are turning to the VA because of the rising costs of private health care. At a Legion event in March, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said his department had adjudicated 800,000 claims but received 1.2 million more, Foster said. It takes an average of six months to process a simple claim, he added.

"It's a big issue to the veteran if he or she has a medical issue that has festered and they're trying to get health care, especially if it's chronic or affects them going to work," Foster said in an interview.

Foster suggested to President Barack Obama that the Legion could help by forming a task force to offer ideas on how to improve the claims process. He met with the president March 28.

At that meeting, Foster also asked Obama about a bill that passed last year to support the caregivers of seriously injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and to improve services for women veterans. The legislation has not yet been implemented so the veterans' caregivers are not receiving the supportive services and living stipends the bill provides.

"He said it would happen around Tax Day and we're going to hold him to that," Foster said Friday. "The people who are caring for injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are giving up a lot. They need the additional assistance and stipend. It passed, get it implemented."

Many veterans are concerned that services for them will be cut to balance the budget, Foster said. Foster said the Legion has an ongoing dialogue with members of Congress, telling them not to "balance the budget on the backs of the veterans."

The Legion is also trying to get Congress to eliminate a tax on the disability benefits for veterans who are 10 percent to 40 percent disabled.

Daniel C. Thurston Jr., the department commander for Connecticut who traveled with Foster Friday, said, "We try to bring the needs of the veterans' community to the point where we can get something done on the local, state or national level."

Foster stopped in New London at the Coast Guard Academy, in Norwich at Three Rivers Community College, and at Legion posts in Lebanon and Jewett City. The LaFlamme-Kusek American Legion Post 15 building in Jewett City is being converted into housing units for homeless veterans.

Plans call for 18 apartments, with eight apartments in the Legion headquarters on South Main Street and the rest in a new building around the corner.

At the site, Foster was given a brief tour of the gutted, 130-year-old building, which is in the early stages of renovation.

The tour continued at the "Home at Last" headquarters on Main Street, where Foster saw blueprints of the renovations. The building is on schedule to open in March 2012, said Bill Czmyr, president of the Veteran's Housing Project.

The bottom floor will remain Post 15 headquarters, Czmyr said, with one-bedroom apartments on the upper floors. He said two-thirds of the building will be converted into homeless veteran housing.

Foster was impressed with the Jewett City project, the first of its kind he has seen in his travels, he said. He called it a model for other Legion posts, and said he would keep up on the progress of the project.

"It's an honor and privilege for me to be here and I commend you all for your persistence" in fundraising and getting the construction under way, Foster told the 25 or so Legion members that came to greet him.

"This gives me renewed faith in America that there are some gracious and good people out there."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

s.goldstein@theday.com

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