SALSA Staff Attorney Todd M. Tagami, SFC (Ret.), US Army
As a Veteran, I have found San Antonio to be everything it advertises itself to be as “Military City USA,” which is a fitting name for our community, as in addition to the thousands of active-duty personnel stationed at Joint-Base San Antonio, 186,804 military veterans reside in Bexar County and its contiguous counties.[i] Veterans in San Antonio have access to countless services and organizations which provide health care, employment, housing, mental health care, food assistance, and much, much, more. However, the only organization possessing life changing resources for a veteran is the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). The VA is governed by departmental policies and procedures, federal law, and is intertwined with Department of Defense policies and regulations, which creates a perpetually changing labyrinth veterans must navigate to receive the benefits promised to them. Due to the unique nature of VA processes, anyone wishing to assist a veteran with VA benefits must be accredited by the VA Secretary through its General Counsel’s Office.[ii] Military City USA, where over 11% of the state’s veterans reside,[iii] has twenty accredited attorneys available to assist the county’s 186,804 military veterans.[iv]
VA policies and procedures have experienced a massive change in the last two decades. Many veterans previously ineligible for benefits, are now eligible due to recent legislative and executive actions. These newly eligible veterans are not automatically enrolled or approved for VA benefits. They must still apply for benefits, meet the current statutory criteria, and fulfill the administrative requirements and procedures of claims submitted to the VA. For example, to receive health care and compensation from the VA for a mental health condition, a veteran must prove the following: that their service was honorable; that their injury or condition is connected to their activities while in service; and how much it affects the veteran’s ability to work.[v] The veteran must submit forms, documentary and medical evidence, and a brief to the approving authority explaining why the veteran meets the benefit eligibility requirements. Many of the implied tasks associated with meeting those requirements can seem confusing at best and insurmountable for some veterans, especially when the original denied claim is decades old.
There is good news though, accreditation as a VA attorney is free and as simple as emailing the VA Office of General Counsel’s Office a statement of good standing from the State Bar and an Application for Accreditation as a Claims Agent or Attorney.[vi] More details are available at: https://www.va.gov/ogc/accreditation.asp. Accredited attorneys can assist veterans with claims for monetary compensation for injuries sustained in service, access to health care including behavioral health access, VA pensions, military discharge upgrades, character of discharge determinations, and appeals for denial of benefits by the VA or Department of Defense.
An attorney with limited exposure to the military subculture, may be nervous to jump into such a foreign area of administrative law. I have found my fellow VA accredited attorneys are more than willing to provide mentorship and best practices to anyone serving the veteran population. Accredited attorneys willing to represent a SALSA veteran client are provided: (1) support from three VA accredited SALSA staff members; (2) access to VA accredited and experienced mentors; (3) examples and pre-assembled claim applications; and (4) a Moody Fellowship Law Student from St. Mary’s to assist with the creation of the required package. VA accreditation and representation of a veteran is a great way to SHOW your appreciation for a veteran’s service and sacrifice. Please join me and the SALSA Veterans’ Benefits Program in thanking our veterans though action and become a VA accredited attorney today!
[i] American Community Survey 5-year estimates, U.S. Census Bureau, http://censusreporter.org/profiles/05000US48013-atascosa-county-tx (last visited Feb. 9, 2022).
[ii] 38 U.S.C. § 5901.
[iii] Veteran Statistics: Texas, U.S. Census Bureau, https://www2.census.gov/library/visualizations/2015/comm/vets/tx-vets.pdf (last visited Mar. 10, 2022).
[iv] Accreditation Search, U.S. Dep’t of Veteran Aff., https://www.va.gov/ogc/apps/accreditation/index.asp? (last visited Feb. 9, 2022).
[v] Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors, U.S. Dep’t of Veteran Aff. (2021), https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/benefits_book.asp (last visited Mar. 9, 2022).
[vi] Applying for Accreditation as an Attorney or Agent, U.S. Dep’t of Veteran Aff., https://www.va.gov/OGC/docs/Accred/HowtoApplyforAccreditation.pdf (last visited Mar. 9, 2022).