National Commander Nancy Espinosa (left) sits beside National Adjutant Barry Jesinoski, National Headquarters Executive Director Cody VanBoxel, National Voluntary Services Director John Kleindienst, National Employment Director Ryan Burgos and Auxiliary National Commander AnneMarie Hurley before Espinosa’s congressional testimony at the DAV 2024 Mid-Winter Conference.

Following a long history of being “dismissed and misunderstood” as a woman veteran, DAV National Commander Nancy Espinosa ensured she, on behalf of her fellow veterans, would be heard.

Sitting before members of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees, Espinosa said women veterans have historically been overlooked and underserved. “With more women than ever serving in the military, we must ensure that [the Department of Veterans Affairs] has the resources and expertise to meet all the physical and mental health care needs of women veterans,” said Espinosa.

The congressional testimony officially kicked off the DAV 2024 Mid-Winter Conference. The annual advocacy meeting draws hundreds of DAV members and leaders to Washington to meet with some of the few people running the country—senators and representatives—and push them to follow through on DAV’s critical policy goals.

“We aim to show our elected leaders our determination and unwavering commitment to the veteran community,” said DAV National Adjutant Barry Jesinoski following Espinosa’s testimony. “This commitment can be seen across the nation each and every day.”

Throughout the event, participants filled the halls of Congress and promoted DAV’s six major legislative priorities for 2024.

  • Correct inequities for veterans receiving compensation benefits and provide parity in benefits for survivors.
  • Ensure the faithful implementation of the PACT Act and address gaps in toxic-exposure benefits.
  • Establish equity in VA care, services and benefits for women, LGBTQ+ and minority veterans.
  • Provide a full spectrum of long-term care options for service-disabled and aging veterans.
  • Bolster mental health resources to ensure reduction of veteran suicides.
  • Expand the VA’s capacity to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans.

The conference dovetailed with DAV’s newest women veterans advocacy project, Women Veterans: The Journey to Mental Wellness. The campaign, DAV’s third in the last decade to address women veterans, is the first to focus on mental health. It provided crucial information for members to cite when conveying the unique experiences and needs of women, the fastest-growing veteran demographic.

It digs deeply “into the unique factors contributing to the staggering rate of suicide among women veterans,” Espinosa said in her testimony. As stated in the report, between 2020 and 2021, the suicide rate among women veterans climbed more than 24%—eclipsing the 2.6% increase among nonveteran women and reflecting an urgent need for Congress and the VA to act.

Department of Ohio Commander John Plahovinsak presents DAV’s critical policy goals to a member of his state’s congressional delegation.

Helping fellow veterans was a central theme for the leaders who took the issues affecting the men and women who served to the doorsteps of Congress. Among those leaders is John Plahovinsak, who has been using mid-winter conferences to advocate for his fellow veterans since 2017.

A past DAV Department of Ohio commander and member of Chapter 63 in Batavia, Plahovinsak said the effort was sacred. “We’re standing for the veterans that are not here,” he said, “and the fallen veterans whose spouses depend on us getting things done for them.”

While speaking at the event’s opening, VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged that drive among DAV members to aid their brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

“You play a critical role, a key enabler in achieving VA’s mission in keeping our promise to veterans,” he said.

“Like I said [last] summer in Atlantic City, we have no better partner than DAV,” he added, referencing the 2023 DAV and Auxiliary National Convention.

In addition to DAV’s new women veterans report, McDonough also praised the PACT Act, DAV-supported legislation that unlocked VA benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances, and mentioned how the department will expand benefits to three new groups.

“If they served in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq or Afghanistan, they can enroll,” McDonough said. “If they deployed to any combat zone after 9/11, they can enroll; if they deployed in support of the Global War on Terror, they can enroll.”

Those expansions took effect March 5.

Commander Espinosa poses with Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire. Pappas received DAV’s Outstanding House Legislator of the Year award.

Also during the conference, DAV bestowed the 2024 Outstanding House Legislator of the Year award on Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire for his unwavering support of America’s veterans while serving on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“Those being recognized with DAV’s 2024 National Commander’s Advocacy Awards have illustrated an unmatched commitment to fighting for the best interests of veterans and their families,” said Espinosa. “Veterans are a nonpartisan issue, and Rep. Pappas has worked tirelessly to ensure our nation keeps its promises to America’s veterans.”

“I’m honored to receive this recognition from DAV today and to work alongside them to support our veterans and their families,” said Pappas. “No one who has served our country should ever doubt that our government will live up to the sacred promises we have made to them, and every bit of progress we make in improving benefits and care for veterans and their families is worth the effort. I look forward to continuing to work closely with DAV and the New Hampshire veteran community to ensure we are meeting the needs of all our veterans who have sacrificed so much for all Americans.”

Pappas’ legislative achievements include a bill signed into law in 2022 that streamlines how the VA identifies and helps veterans’ survivors receive the benefits of their loved ones. He also reintroduced the bipartisan GUARD VA Benefits Act, which would protect veterans by reimposing criminal penalties for unaccredited claim representatives, also known as “claim sharks,” who charge exorbitant fees under the guise of assisting veterans with filing a VA claim.

“VA-accredited representatives, like DAV benefits advocates, are the only individuals VA allows to file claims on a veteran’s behalf,” said DAV National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “Claims sharks try to profit by circumventing policies meant to protect the veteran.”

By contrast, DAV’s services, including filing for disability compensation, are always free.

DAV members from the Department of Oregon gather outside the office of Rep. Earl Blumenauer after a productive meeting.

During the Benefits Protection Team Leader Workshop, DAV Deputy National Legislative Director Shane Liermann applauded the Department of Nevada for their efforts in persuading Rep. Dina Titus to introduce legislation that would aid and protect veterans living with the consequences of nuclear testing.

“Last year at mid-winter, they met with their representative, and guess what? She turned around and introduced H.R. 4566 based on our critical policy goal,” said Liermann.

The bill, known as the PRESUME Act, would strip the VA’s requirement for a radiation dose estimate before a veteran may receive earned benefits for radiation-linked diseases.

“It goes to show that when DAV members are engaged, they can effect real change on Capitol Hill and beyond,” Liermann concluded.