DAV helps disabled Army veteran access VA benefits and keep a roof over his head

Andre Williams can trace his current health woes back nearly four decades to headaches, stiff joints and difficulty with balance while serving in the Army. Although he was unaware at the time, the 62-year-old veteran now recognizes those ailments as the beginning of his battle with multiple sclerosis.

MS, a disease of the nervous system, is known to cause problems with vision, equilibrium and muscle control and often progresses gradually over many years. For Williams, decades passed before he thought anything of those lingering aches and pains. But in 2010, he received the life-changing diagnosis that threatened not only his health but also his ability to earn a living.

“Those early signs were nothing that would concern me at the time, especially when you’re in your late teens or early 20s,” he said. “Now that I’ve learned more about MS, I was definitely having symptoms a long time ago, even on active duty.”

After service, Williams had been employed as a furniture salesman at a large department store. However, the disease eventually impacted his capacity to stand on the showroom floor for hours. In 2014, Williams lost his home in Rancho Cordova, Calif., after he was no longer able to work. Two years later, he walked into the DAV national service office in Sacramento in search of benefits.

“His claim was denied, and he was looking for help with an appeal,” said National Service Officer Dianna Camac, who supervises the office in Sacramento. “As I looked at the case, I thought it would be best to present it before a veterans law judge.”

Camac and Williams stated his case to a VA judge in July 2019. Since the onset of his MS symptoms occurred when he was still in service, Camac argued, Williams should receive service connection, which would unlock VA benefits and compensation.

“Veterans diagnosed with MS within seven years of leaving military service are entitled to receive such benefits,” she added. “Of course, his diagnosis was much later, but the testimony that Mr. Williams provided was key, and that’s what the judge was really interested in.”

Williams also told the judge that he was facing eviction from his apartment after falling behind on his rent because the debilitating illness keeps him from working. While that was previously unknown to Camac, she quickly gathered the relevant information and applied for emergency financial assistance with the PenFed Foundation, the nonprofit arm of PenFed Credit Union and a DAV partner.

DAV and the PenFed Foundation’s ongoing collaboration has helped more than 1,130 veterans access more than $1.57 million in emergency assistance since 2016. The partnership has existed since 2015, and the DAV Charitable Trust has donated more than $1.2 million to support the PenFed Foundation’s Military Heroes Fund, which provides short-term emergency assistance to veterans like Williams.

“Our DAV partnership program is successful because of our shared mission to improve the quality of veterans’ lives,” said Daria Teutonico, director of programs for the PenFed Foundation. “Our close working relationship with DAV national service officers ensures a smooth and efficient process to assist veterans as quickly as possible.”

The PenFed Foundation provided Williams’ landlord with two months’ worth of back rent in August 2019, which was enough of a bridge to keep a roof over his head.

“I was ecstatic,” said Williams. “I don’t have any close relatives or anyone that I could stay with, and I would’ve been out there on my own.”

“The process was quick,” Camac added, “because all that’s required is a short application from the veteran and to agree to some financial counseling.”

Williams’ claim for MS was approved in December and backdated to 2015. The VA compensation he received more than prevented homelessness; Williams is also looking forward to closing on his new home, located in the same neighborhood where he previously lived. He also stresses the importance of having an advocate, like DAV, in your corner and staying positive.

“For other veterans out there, your claim may take a while,” said Williams. “But you have to be patient.”