Veterans group closing GJ office

Area veterans on Monday learned they will lose a resource that helps them navigate a labyrinth of forms and red tape for help not only with medical benefits, but also with vocational rehabilitation, education and home loan guaranty.

The Grand Junction office of the Disabled American Veterans, housed at the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center, will close Nov. 30. The reason: not enough money.

“We knew there was a budget shortfall the last few years,” said David Dunnagan, hospital services coordinator for the local office of the DAV. “They’re running out of money. Donations are down.”

Last year, he said, the Colorado offices of the DAV, a national nonprofit organization, were short $600,000. Those offices have been mostly funded by two thrift stores in Lakewood and Colorado Springs. They are the latest victims of the ripple effect caused by a national decrease in charitable giving.

In this case, the victims of this decrease are veterans.

“We believe we have about 42,000 veterans on the Western Slope, in 17 1/2 counties in three states” who are served by the Grand Junction VA Medical Center, said Paul Sweeney, chief of customer relations for the medical center. “The DAV has been the main resource, especially when (veterans service officers) find complex issues, they send those to Dave (Dunnagan).”

The DAV helps veterans navigate the application process for health care, compensation, pensions, home loans, claims and widow’s benefits, among other benefits. Dunnagan said the Grand Junction office, which consists of him and his secretary, helps 20 to 25 veterans per day, on average.

The office also has a transportation service to take veterans to and from their appointments at the VA medical center, giving rides to anywhere from six to 15 veterans a day, Dunnagan said.

“The vans are driven by volunteers and they’ve been donated to the VA, so we’ll be able to keep them,” Sweeney said. “The issue, of course, is going to be coordination of transportation.”

Sweeney said a particular concern is losing Dunnagan’s 21 years of experience: “He’s got the experience to streamline the process as much as possible,” Sweeney said. “It’s going to take the other (veterans service officers) out there a while to learn those channels. And of course when you get those one-offs and those unique situations, you have to learn the system one more time. That’s all in Dave’s institutional memory.”

Garry Augustine, national service director for the DAV, said the organization isn’t abandoning Colorado. He said the DAV is divided into chapters, which are the local, grassroots groups; department service offices, which are funded at the state level; and national service offices, which are funded by the national organization. He said the DAV national service office in Denver, which has six Front Range-based service officers, is doing well and will continue to serve veterans.

Augustine also said the national DAV is working to establish relationships with county veterans service officers. “We have some excellent county veterans service officers out there,” Sweeney said. “But they’re covering several counties each and that’s a lot of area.”

He said local VA officials are discussing how to fill the gap when the DAV office closes at the end of November. Steps may include closer collaboration with veterans service officers and organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

A particular concern, he said, is for patients with cognitive impairment, who might become confused or frustrated navigating the paperwork that precedes any veteran’s benefit.

In the meantime, until Nov. 30, the transportation service should continue and he still will help veterans access benefits, Dunnagan said.

“We just do what we can,” he said. “We just have to make the best of it and do what we can to take care of our veterans.”


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