Ray Tarnow huddled with veterans working on their Department of Veterans Affairs claims into the midnight hour, compelled not to have others wait to file for the benefits they earned like his grandfather, a Korean War veteran, who died without achieving justice for his sacrifices.
Claims assistance work is a key component of outreach efforts at multiple northern Indiana DAV chapters, including Chapter 102 in Valparaiso, which draws hundreds of veterans to meetings each month.
Chapter service officers prepare each claim with the veteran and then forward the claim to a DAV benefits advocate for final review and submittal to the VA. Benefits advocates follow up with veterans when claims need additional attention or details.
Tarnow, a Navy veteran and junior vice commander of Chapter 102, is the chapter’s lead service officer. He said his own VA claims took 10 years to process before he joined DAV.
Benefits advocates sometimes stay until 1 or 2 a.m. to ensure claims are done correctly, he said.
“We stay until the last veteran is seen, talked to, and all their issues and questions are answered,” Tarnow said. “Sometimes we’re lucky and we can get out of here at 11 o’clock or midnight, but regardless of the time, we stay until they’re all seen.”
177 claims in one night
At the March 2023 Valparaiso chapter meeting, veterans were lined up out the door and the parking lot was full 90 minutes before the meeting began.
Mike Chiarodo is the chapter’s volunteer coordinator. The Marine veteran usually starts signing up veterans for claims assistance at 2 p.m. before meeting nights. By 5 that evening, almost 100 veterans had signed up. At the end of the night, 177 veterans received individual claims assistance.
Chiarodo said his team of 30 volunteers is there to help as many veterans as possible on meeting nights.
“That’s the only reason I work,” Chiarodo said. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, and we weren’t treated nice. And I know that, but what I do helps a lot of veterans.”
David Preston said one of his neighbors told him about DAV assistance at the chapter meetings. The March 2023 meeting was his first time attending, and he was one of 16 veterans who received first-time claims assistance that night.
“It’s been an amazing first impression,” Preston said. “I think there was over 200 people here tonight. I got here around 2 p.m. to sign in and went home, I had dinner with my family, came back, and the only open seat was in the front row.”
Navy Seabee veteran Dylan Ellis was back for a second time to receive medical claims assistance. Before his first meeting, Ellis said he opted not to go inside several times after seeing the crowd of people and cars.
“I turned around and went home until finally my wife had enough and said, ‘You’ve got to stay. You’ve got to do it.’ So, I’m here,” Ellis said.
Ellis said he tried applying for benefits with the VA on his own, without success, 10 years ago.
“Friends, one guy that I served with and two guys that work for me, are disabled veterans,” he said. “They’ve been telling me for years that I have to come.”
Reliable claims work is a big reason attendance at chapter meetings keeps growing, said Michael Thomas, Department of Indiana junior vice commander and past Chapter 102 commander.
“They know we get the job done. People come, and it’s by referral,” Thomas said. “Their friends refer other friends.”
The retired Army veteran also works as one of the chapter service officers.
“It’s become my mission and my heart and soul to help other veterans, and that’s what it’s all about here,” he said. “It’s just help for veterans, you know, our brothers and our sisters. We welcome them with open arms, and we do everything we can to help them.”
The chapter service officers stay late into the evening doing claims work to make sure the claims are done correctly, he said.
“We don’t quit. You know, we stay until everything is done and every veteran who comes to this is taken care of,” he said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Chapter 102 first started meeting at a hotel conference center in 2016 but decided it wasn’t a good fit. The chapter then moved its meeting to a local hall.
“We were there about three years or four years, and we just got too big. We were up to 150 or 200 members, and the meeting space was too small,” said Thomas.
It’s a persistent problem for the chapter. They’re now looking for another site, as they’re already outgrowing the hall where they currently meet.
Tarnow and his crew didn’t leave the March meeting until after 12:30 a.m., having processed each claim.
This is repeatable
Growing chapter membership by providing claims assistance at meetings can be a model for others, Chapter 102 leaders said, noting that seeing 177 veterans in a night is not uncommon.
Part of the advantage is veterans can come to a meeting instead of going to a daytime visit at a VA medical center or service office.
“When we demonstrate DAV is a service-first organization, we attract new members and reinvigorate and sustain our existing members,” said DAV National Membership Director Doug Wells. “Chapters will be successful when they focus on serving their fellow veterans.”
Wells said building a strong chapter service officer group and having a strong Auxiliary are both important factors in the ability to make a difference for veterans.
Tarnow works at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, as a safety officer. He gets up at 5 a.m. to go work the morning after long chapter meetings.
When Tarnow grows weary, he thinks about veterans like his grandfather, whom he was trying to get benefits for before he died.
“I really regret not knowing about DAV and what it offers … that I was not able to get him his benefits before he passed,” Tarnow said.
When Tarnow sees veterans at the grocery store and gas station, he asks them if they are receiving the assistance they earned.
“If we help one more vet get any type of medical help or whatever benefit that they are entitled to, that they fought for defending this country, then damn we need to do it,” Tarnow said. “I think that’s where my commitment comes from is my regret of not being able to do that for my grandfather.”