Taking training to the next level, together

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Couple’s ability to help fellow veterans grows through expanded benefits assistance education

In March, DAV rolled out a program to expand its renowned claims assistance training for department and chapter service officers, and one husband and wife team is already using what they learned as they work to support hundreds of their fellow veterans each year.

Charles and Zillian Fuller both served in the U.S. military, and now together they serve their fellow veterans through DAV.

“Just this week I helped a World War II veteran try to access more of the benefits he earned. His generation made it possible for us to be where we are today, just like the service men and women serving today—they all helped or are helping to preserve our way of life,” said Charles Fuller. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. Especially because I get to do it with my best friend every day.”

Zillian Fuller served in the Air Force from 1984 to 1991, and Charles Fuller was in the Navy from 1990 to 1996. They have been married 17 years this month, but have been together for 24 years.

“He understands me and I understand him,” explained Zillian Fuller of her relationship with her veteran husband.

“I was in the Navy, and she was in the Air Force—no one is perfect,” said Fuller. “I like to joke, but in reality, we still speak the same language in so many ways.”

The Fullers first became involved with DAV through an invitation from a member to check out Chapter 41 in Portsmouth, Virginia.

“We visited and decided to join that day. They needed chapter service officers, so we decided to do that, too,” said Zillian Fuller, who followed in the footsteps of her father and is a second generation DAV member.

The Fullers said they were drawn to the organization by not only the issues members discussed that impacted veterans, but the solutions members developed to address them.

“I was medically discharged from the Navy with a pat on the back and a severance check. I wasn’t aware of the benefits I could have had before I finally had my claim submitted and filed. I probably missed out on about $14,000 worth of benefits,” said Charles Fuller. “We don’t want to see other veterans deal with the same frustrations. If we can help people navigate the pitfalls we were in, then that’s what we want to do.”

In September 2015, the Fullers went through their initial chapter service officer training, and they wasted no time amassing hours.

“It isn’t unusual for us to spend 275 to 300 hours on the chapter,” explained Charles Fuller, who reports the volunteering through DAV’s Local Veterans Assistance Program.

He said the majority of support and services they provide to veterans are related to benefits assistance, but the pair also help veterans in other areas, such as connecting them with career opportunities at jobs.dav.org.

“We see that as part of our responsibility, as well,” added Charles Fuller. “Our focus is claims work, but we have a banner that reads DAV’s mission in our office; ‘We are dedicated to a single purpose: empowering veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity.’ We take that to heart.”

Last year at the DAV Department of Virginia Convention, the Fullers expected to take the DAV Department and Chapter Service Officer Certification Program Level I training as a refresher course. Instead they were enrolled in the first session of the newly released Level II training, put on by National Area Supervisor Oscar Olguin.

“It’s a very intense course. Level I training teaches you about the general forms you need and how to file a claim, and what basic service connection is,” explained Olguin, who conducts both sessions. “Level II training dives into specifics of service connection, as well as VA programs, regulations, adjudication and appeals. It is much more detailed.”

Olguin explained that in the past some departments provided advanced training for some service officers, but it was not consistent nationwide or conducted by national service officers. That has all changed with the new course.

“At the national, department and chapter levels, DAV service officers have long been recognized as being at the forefront of veterans’ advocacy,” said National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “They each are meticulous, ensuring that every earned benefit is received. Expanding our training for department and chapter service officers provides them tools to serve veterans even more efficiently and expeditiously.”

The consistency of the advanced training also helps national service officers as they review all submitted claims on behalf of DAV, explained Olguin, a combat-disabled Army veteran.

“Department and chapter service officers with past Level I training may be eligible for Level II training, but it is at the discretion of department leadership,” said Olguin. “If you are a service officer that is interested, reach out to your department to learn more about participating. It is very educational and the feedback we receive from those in the course makes it even better.”

Charles Fuller said he thought that the Level II course was streamlined and covered more ground in less time because it answered questions the group had before they had to be asked.

“In Level I training, they don’t get into the appeals process,” said Charles Fuller. “A common question we get asked by veterans is, ‘Why does it take so long for appeals?’ Now we understand the process, which is very involved. We have a better picture of the steps and now can better explain that to the veteran and guide them.”

Helping their fellow veterans is what is important to the Fullers, and they feel the DAV Department and Chapter Service Officer Certification Program Level II has made them more effective in their mission of serving their brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

“When we stood and swore to defend the constitution, the government made a promise back that we’d be taken care of,” said Charles Fuller. “But that hasn’t always happened so that’s what we are doing: fulfilling the promises to the men and women who served.”

Charles Fuller noted that in June, his wife was recognized as having already filed 72 claims for the year, and that put her at the second most in the entire DAV Department of Virginia. In addition to serving as senior chapter service officers, Zillian Fuller is the chapter treasurer, and her husband serves as chaplain at both the chapter and state level.

“There is a camaraderie in the military amongst your peers that once you get out, it’s gone and you don’t have it anymore,” explained Zillian Fuller. “In DAV, you get that back. You have camaraderie with people who know what you have been through and we can help each other.”

It isn’t just Zillian Fuller and her husband who are supporting veterans; giving back to the men and women who served is a family affair.

“Our youngest son is the junior vice commander for the [DAV] Auxiliary, and Charles’ mom is in the unit, too,” said Zillian Fuller. “In our family, it is important that we recognize and honor the sacrifices that veterans make. The attitude and atmosphere in DAV is a culture we appreciate and try to foster. DAV is a place veterans can call home, where they’re safe to be themselves.

“We have things to work on in this country, just look at the news—but we have so much to be thankful for, and veterans made much of that possible.”