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Life Changing

Reprinted from PN April 2017

Every day, PVA National Service Officers work to make sure injured veterans and their families receive the benefits and assistance they earned while serving their country.

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Doug Woodward could use a few more hours in each day. But, since he doesn’t have the power to slow the rotation of the Earth, he’d probably be willing to settle for a clone. Woodward, 48, of Huntington, W. Va., is a senior national service officer (NSO) for the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). He’s just one of more than 70 NSOs across offices in 39 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico who provide assistance to paralyzed veterans, their families and veterans with disabilities. These services range from bedside visits to guidance in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claims process to legal representation for appealing denied claims. Like many NSOs, Woodward doesn’t just help the immediate area where his office is located. In addition to serving the Huntington area, he works as a manager for PVA’s central-north area, which covers a few states beyond his own. It’s easy to see why he’s a busy guy.

“My day flies by,” he says. “I’m in a job where I look at the clock and think I need more hours. In this job, I want the clock to slow down.”

Woodward has about 500 cases that he and his senior secretary handle alone at their Huntington office. Each of those cases has a story. Each is connected to a person who is very likely struggling with some type of service-connected disability or chronic illness. Each of those people looks to Woodward for help. Because requesting and then finally receiving benefits can be a process. It can take months. Sometimes longer. As an NSO, Woodward knows the drill. He understands how to advocate for veterans in need of benefits, a majority of whom qualify for service-connected compensation, which means their illness or injury can be traced to their days in active duty. While PVA focuses its services toward veterans who have sustained a spinal-cord injury or live with spinal-cord disease, Woodward says his office has become known for working with veterans who have been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS.

“It’s a presumptive diagnosis of active duty,” Woodward says of ALS. “They are entitled to 100 percent service benefits. I think it’s becoming more and more well-known.”

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His Door Is Open

For Woodward, each day brings a different challenge. He has an open door policy, allowing veterans to walk in without an appointment to discuss their needs or concerns. And just about every day someone does. When they do, Woodward meets with them without pause. He starts each day by clearing his inbox and returning calls and then gets to work on checking his diary, a log of active claims used by every NSO to track the progress of their cases and remind them of important case milestones that may need to be addressed. It serves as a handy, electronic to-do list. Depending on the claim, Woodward knows it wouldn’t be beneficial to check on its progress until 90 to 120 days past the day it was filed. For appeals, he may not get any type of meaningful update for up to six months.

“The appellate process takes significantly longer than a new claim,” he says.

And therein lies some of the frustration. Not his, necessarily, but from the veterans with whom he works. Woodward gets the angry phone calls. And the hang-ups, sometimes. But there’s an empathy there. Woodward can appreciate the feelings on the other end of the line. So the let-downs make the wins all the more satisfying.

“The job can be incredibly gratifying,” he says. “We do some things that help veterans in such a tremendous way that it can be 
life-changing.”


Doug Woodward handles about 500 veterans’ cases in his Huntington, W. Va., office.

How He Helps

Woodward knows the system. A Navy veteran, Woodward served on a Philadelphia-based ship that deployed to the Caribbean to crack down on illegal drug operations. He readily admits that he could have received worse marching orders. From there, he settled in Louisville, Ky., where he worked for the VA, acting as a coordinator for claims evidence related to veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. One claim was tricky. And that claim put him in touch with a national service officer. They worked at length together to try to find a resolution on the complicated claim before the officer told Woodward that he should consider becoming an NSO. And he’s happy he did, despite meeting some people who may be really struggling. 

“There is lots of human interaction, and that works better for me,” he says.

Once a week, Woodward visits the Huntington VA Medical Center, which services parts of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. While there, he puts faces with names. He checks on the folks he knows. He meets new veterans and encourages them to visit with him to make sure they are receiving everything to which they’re entitled. He also meets with the VA staff members who are directly connected to treating and working with patients who have sustained spinal-cord injuries. When he talks with new patients, ones he hasn’t met before, he lets them know about his specialized skill and intimate knowledge of benefits and claims for veterans with spinal-cord injury and spinal-cord disease.

Rolling Your Way

Put simply, Woodward and his NSO peers know the ins and outs of benefits that average veterans may not even know are available to them.

“Some conditions are so severe that even a 100 percent service-connected compensation does not adequately compensate the veteran and provide for his or her needs,” Woodward says.

He worked with a veteran who served in Afghanistan who qualified for more than 100 percent benefits. The veteran was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the spine. And Woodward knew just what to do to help him.

“There are monetary benefits called special monthly compensation based on loss of use that would provide him with monetary benefits greater than what the 100 percent level pays,” Woodward says.

Sometimes, people don’t even think to ask because they don’t know what’s available. It’s Woodward’s job to help veterans and their families connect the dots on eligible benefits. And it’s incredibly rewarding when it all comes together. Lately, Woodward has been knee-deep in ALS claims, which may also qualify veterans for the special monthly compensation above and beyond a 100% benefit. Because of the nature of the degenerative disease, ALS patients endure progressively more severe symptoms that ultimately result in loss of use. Specific to ALS, some veterans may qualify for an adaptive automobile grant or an adaptive housing grant. That’s the “life-changing” part.

“Some of these veterans, they range in socioeconomic status,” Woodward says. “Some of the veterans we represent have little to no income, or they perhaps don’t have the means to adapt their home or purchase a safe, adaptable vehicle. But in one phone call, we can say, ‘You’re going to have these benefits rolling your way, in addition to monthly compensation.’ ”

Huntington is an aging area with a high percentage of veterans. In fact, Woodward says West Virginia had the country’s highest per capita veteran population at one point. The military has always been one of a few options for kids growing up in certain parts of the state, he says. So, while he does see spinal-cord injuries and he does work with clients living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he tends to see more and more clients living with presumptive conditions such as ALS or those linked to their exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. Woodward knows he can’t make everything better for everyone. But he can help where he can. He can shine a light on financial support, and he can help those who need that support get what they need. That’s the goal.

“I realize none of these monetary benefits cure PTSD or ALS or hearing loss,” he says. “But the monetary benefits can lessen the burden. It can take some of the stressors off the table.”

To find the nearest PVA NSO in your area, check out the PVA Service Officer Roster on page 52 or visit pva.org.

Lisa Nicita is a freelance writer and public relations professional living in Gilbert, Ariz.

 

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