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Tigers for Troops: Helping Rural Veterans Navigate VA
Missouri Ag Connection - 07/31/2020

Understanding and applying for veterans services can be a challenge, and help can be hard to come by, especially in rural communities.

Tigers for Troops, a partnership of University of Missouri Extension and the MU School of Law Veterans Clinic, connects veterans to vital resources through one-on-one consultations by videoconference. It is funded through a grant from the Missouri Housing Development Commission.

In south-central Missouri, Tigers for Troops helped more than a dozen veterans at a July 22 session in Dent County. Participants went to the Salem Community Center for Zoom videoconferences with attorneys, MU Veterans Clinic staff and MU law students, said Sara O'Connor, support specialist for the Veterans Law Clinic. Also on hand were two enrollment specialists from Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital in Columbia.

MU Extension county engagement specialist Sarah Hultine Massengale was on-site in Salem to coordinate, along with support from members of the American Volunteers, a local partner for this event, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs vet center in Columbia.

"Zoom has been a blessing in allowing us to continue to do outreach even when we can't be there in person," O'Connor said. "It's not the same, but this way we can reach many more people than if we were limited to in-person meetings."

Through Tigers for Troops, four veterans were enrolled in the VA health care program, and two were able to obtain expanded or additional VA health care services, O'Connor said. Several participants received referrals to other organizations for assistance. Four were accepted as new clients of the Veterans Clinic, where they will receive pro bono legal assistance with their claims for VA compensation

Applying for veterans services can be a complex process. For those struggling with physical or mental health issues, it can be "absolutely overwhelming and discouraging," O'Connor says.

"VA disability claims are similar in some ways to a workmen's comp claim -- these are injuries and illnesses our servicemen and women incurred while serving our country," she says. "In many cases, these issues will be with them for life. Getting compensated for those problems can be a years-long process, and without assistance, even the most intelligent, capable veterans can need help navigating the system."

Tigers for Troops began in February 2019 with an emphasis on outreach to communities that did not have nearby veterans services. The program originally involved law students and supervising attorneys traveling to MU Extension centers for in-person consultations. However, this time- and resource-intensive approach limited the program's reach, so Tigers for Troops took a cue from the MU School of Medicine's Missouri Telehealth Network: Last July, county engagement specialist Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá hosted a successful pilot program at the Jasper County Extension Center in Carthage, where veterans had individual teleconferences with members of the Tigers for Troops legal team on the MU campus.

For more information about Tigers for Troops, contact MULawVetClinic@missouri.edu or visit law.missouri.edu/veterans-clinic.

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