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March/April 2024 -   -  

A Groundbreaking Event in Puerto Rico

Progress on the Future of the Board of Veterans Appeals
A serene view of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, with the historic El Morro fortress standing guard over the bay, as a rainbow hangs in the sky above the city's timeless beauty. (Courtesy Mokie Porter/VVA Veteran)

I would like to personally invite you to spend a day with the Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals,” VVA President Jack McManus wrote to VVA members in Puerto Rico, late last year “This is your event to hear about the future of all appeals for all veterans.”

On January 30, more than 240 veterans and representatives of VSOs from across the island heeded the call and took part in a day-long event at the Community Center at Ft. Buchanan, the U.S. Army base in Guaynabo.

“When I was here last,” McManus told the group, “I heard from veterans and their families about the difficulties they face in Puerto Rico. I promised you that I would work on those issues and return. So, here we are, with the Honorable Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, General Jaime Areizaga-Soto.”

This pivotal meeting had its roots on Veterans Day 2022 at Arlington National Cemetery when Gen. Soto approached McManus, expressing a desire to understand the challenges in the appeals process firsthand.

“No other person in General Soto’s position had ever approached VVA with a request to ‘come and sit down with me and tell me what you’re worried about,” McManus said. “I was skeptical we would hear from him again, but he reached out.”

General Jaime Areizaga-Soto, the chair of the VA Board of Veterans' Appeals, addressing the day-long, VVA-sponsored meeting at Ft. Buchanan in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. (Courtesy Mokie Porter/VVA Veteran)

In January 2023, a significant meeting took place between McManus, VVA Vice President Tom Burke, the VVA Benefits team, and Gen. Soto in which they had a candid discussion about the appeals process.

“We talked about why there were delays in hearing legacy cases and when we could expect the backlog of legacy appeals to be cleared,” McManus said. “These were the pressing questions.”

Since 2019, the Board, with support from Congress, has expanded to accommodate the growing number of appeals. All appeals are now processed in the order in which they are received, with exceptions made for appellants over 75 and those experiencing extreme financial duress, serious illness, or other pressing matters.

“In that meeting, we discussed the unique challenges faced by veterans in Puerto Rico,” McManus said. “I highlighted the issue of travel to board hearings, noting that Puerto Rico received only one judge twice a year, significantly less than other locations.” Soto then reviewed the situation and saw that the recent hiring of Spanish-speaking judges was a positive step forward. Soon afterward, the VA agreed to host the meeting in Puerto Rico.

A Collaborative Effort  

What we have today,” McManus said on January 30, “is made possible by VVA and by other organizations allied with us in bringing justice to Puerto Rico’s veterans.” The collaborative effort to bring about the event was underscored by the contributions of VVA Puerto Rico State Council President Jorge Pedroza, Special Adviser Marc McCabe, VA PAO Sharon Delgado, and Puerto Rico state council members.

Gen. Soto addressed the veterans, saying, “I am here to learn, to listen, and to take action. Today, we are going to have a dialogue.”

His speech included a review of Puerto Rico’s military history and its veterans’ sacrifices, highlighting significant contributions from the time of Ponce de Leon to Puerto Rican military units’ valor in America’s wars dating back to World War I.

He contrasted the reception Vietnam War veterans received after coming home with today’s veterans’ homecomings, emphasizing progress in VA service delivery and Board of Veterans’ Appeals efforts to resolve appeals efficiently.

VVA Vice President Tom Burke (front row, second from left), President Jack McManus (fifth from left), and Gen. Jaime Areizaga-Soto, the Chair of the Board of Veterans' Appeals (fourth from right), with attendees at the VVA-sponsored meeting in Puerto Rico. (Courtesy Mokie Porter/VVA Veteran)

“The experience today is totally different from ours,” he said. “When we are in uniform, little kids come up to thank us for our service, because the parents say, ‘Look, go give thanks to that soldier.’ Today, it doesn’t seem to me it’s a lack of money or a lack of commitment on the part of the U.S. politicians in Congress and in the White House. Every time there’s a budget crisis in the United States, veterans come first. The administration has been improving service delivery throughout the last ten years.”

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, with a mission to help claimants and ensure fairness, has grown to 108 judges who are working through a significant backlog. Despite having resolved close to 100,000 appeals annually in recent years, there still are more than 200,000 appeals in line waiting for a decision. Soto’s commitment to improving the appeals process and engaging with veterans directly marks a significant step forward in addressing longstanding challenges.

Vietnam War veterans from Puerto Rico were front and center at the meeting. (Courtesy Mokie Porter/VVA Veteran)

“Legacy claims still exist, but the board must move on the AMA Appeals, those filed after 2019,” Marc McCabe said. “The good news about these appeals is, since we are over 75, they will be advanced on the docket and heard in a relatively short time.”

Gen. Soto’s emphasis on recent improvements in veterans claims experiences with the VA is accurate, but he admits that positive change is still ongoing. VVA will pursue its aggressive advocacy to ensure that progress is made for all veterans' claims, to facilitate further meetings like the historic one at Fort Buchanan, and to open dialogue between the Board and veterans caught up in the claims process.




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