Veterans Crisis Center Opens In Phoenix

By  Stina Sieg
June 10, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Vietnam vet Bill Reynolds is one of many former military members who came to the American Legion's Veterans Crisis Command Center for help working through the VA health system.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Jose Quintero, who's battling cancer, was able to get his full benefits restored with the help of Ron Abrams. Abrams is with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, one of the many stakeholders who came to Tuesday's crisis center opening.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Lisa Barnes came to the center on behalf of her late husband, who died in 2011 in a VA nursing home. She said that she and her children would have to visit him daily to make sure he received adequate care.
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Vietnam vet Wayne Dolliole waits his turn at the American Legion's Veterans Crisis Center. The center will be open through Friday.

Veterans looking for help navigating the VA health system in Phoenix have a new place to turn this week: the American Legion. The organization has started what it calls a Veterans Crisis Command Center.

On Tuesday, its opening day, a wave of veterans was constantly flowing in and out of the American Legion Post in downtown Phoenix. They were mostly men — mostly in their in their 50s, 60s and 70s — and they were getting help from both American Legion and VA staff.

Some needed to enroll for VA benefits. Others needed to check on a claim or get counseling. Regardless of what it was, this packed room lined with tables was the place to be.

Jose Quintero has cancer, and his benefits were mistakenly cut in half by the VA. Quintero was just informed by a legal services representative he’ll be getting his full benefits retroactively.

“If I hadn’t have been here today, I would have to have waited until the VA would decide to deal with me,” he said, minutes after he heard the news. “And who knows when that’s going to happen?”

This kind of frustration with the VA was voiced by many others, including Bill Reynolds. The Army vet came into the center after feeling brushed aside by a VA staff member. He told her the unsecured cushion on his wheelchair poses a major safety threat. Reynolds, who fought in Vietnam, adopted a high-pitched and irritated voice as he personated her response.

“'If I give you an earlier appointment, it will make my life a living hell,'” he said, before returning to his normal tone. “Well, I’ve been to hell. I know what it looks like. And I’m telling you, what she has is not hell.”

Instead, Reynolds explained, what that staff member needs is help. And that’s the point of this crisis center.

As the American Legion’s Ralf Bozella explained it, the center is not meant to be at odds with the VA. He said it’s here to aid VA in its mission of helping veterans.

Bozella added the Phoenix VA only helps about 26 percent of eligible vets in the area. That number is low compared with other VA cities, though efforts like this could change that.

“There’s a concern on our part that through the next three, four days of the American Legion doing this, we may bring in several hundred people to their system,” Bozella said. “Are they ready for that? And we talked about that, and they know they have to be ready for that.”

And Bozella says the Phoenix VA has a plan in place for that.

The American Legion’s crisis center, located at 364 N. 7th Ave., will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and from 8 a.m. to noon Friday.