The American Red Cross is testing the idea of providing financial assistance to veterans who don't qualify for help through military agencies.

When a veteran has left the military before retirement, he or she isn't eligible for financial assistance through the military relief societies — Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, and Air Force Aid Society. The Red Cross is examining how it might fill that gap, said Kevin Boleyn, director of the organization's Hero Care Network.

The network includes Red Cross emergency call centers, financial assistance and referrals to other organizations in communities. It is creating a national registry of services for veterans and working on a system where trained case workers can use the registry to connect those in need to the appropriate agencies.

The Red Cross also has reorganized its Service to the Armed Forces division, which will help expand the financial assistance it provides to veterans as well as to active-duty members. It has turned its Springfield, Massachusetts, emergency communications site into a Center of Excellence for Financial Assistance. The center's staff will focus on referring military families and veterans who need financial help.

The call centers in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky, are still the initial entry points for emergency communications, but financial assistance requests will be transferred primarily to the Springfield office. These requests generally take more time to process because staff members have to validate them and work with landlords, financial institutions, utility companies and others to prevent eviction, foreclosure and utility shut-offs.

The Springfield center will maintain its call center capability, allowing extra capacity when there are surges in requests at the other call centers for emergency communications messages.

Two pilot Red Cross programs also are underway on a smaller geographic scale. One began in April in San Diego and all of Southern California and Clark County, Nevada, helping veterans who need emergency financial assistance.

The other began a year ago in western Missouri, helping active duty, retirees and veterans with financial needs that don't qualify under the military relief societies' regulations.

Donations from sources other than the military relief societies provide the assistance in these pilot programs.

The Red Cross toll-free emergency hotline is 877-272-7337.

Currently, the Red Cross acts as an agent for facilitates emergency financial assistance through the military relief societies, acting as an agent for them when a request comes in after hours, or for service members or retirees who can’t get to one of the installation relief societies or live more than 50 miles away. The relief societies reimburse the Red Cross for the financial assistance; the Red Cross pays for administrative costs.

"It's one big entire support network, like this quiet safety net under service members and retirees," said Cheri Nylen, director of case work for Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.

A number of advocates have expressed concern about transitioning service members and their families, who are leaving the military and lose various assistance. The Red Cross has seen an upward trend in requests for help, said spokesman Peter Macias, and that played a role in the organization's focus on the problem. "But the exciting thing is that the center also affords the American Red Cross an opportunity to find new ways to assist veterans looking for financial help," he said.

Providing emergency financial assistance to veterans "is definitely a needed service, because the rules change when the service member gets out. They fall into financial traps more," said Letty Stevens, who until recently was a financial coach for veterans in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. "It can be a pretty desperate situation when they get out, especially if they have debt," she said. One need among Vietnam veterans is assistance in paying for dental work, she said.

Nylen said Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society gets around 15 calls a day from veterans who are not retirees, and thus don’t qualify for assistance through that relief society. "By having this Red Cross network, it will be easier to direct them more quickly. ... This will open up a lot of avenues. Even if it’s a clearinghouse, it’s helpful because the case workers are so knowledgeable. This will save veterans time, and may make the difference in preventing them from going to a payday lender or becoming homeless," she said.

"I hope they can find some dedicated funding from other sources for veterans," she said.

The Red Cross will also direct veterans to groups that may be able to assist them with their particular need. "Sometimes it's a matter of knowing where to go in the community," Boleyn said. Currently if a case worker doesn't have a contact for a veteran who calls for assistance, the veteran will be placed into the community referral process where the local chapter may help with access to a food pantry or other financial assistance, he said.

Having a cadre of dedicated staff members who will do the follow-up work required to validate requests for financial assistance will take the labor-intensive responsibility from the staff members at the other emergency call centers, Boleyn said. This will free up staff members at Fort Sill and Louisville for more emergency communications work, taking the calls from military families who need to get emergency messages to their service member, and following up to make the necessary contacts to confirm those emergencies for commanders.  Sometimes those emergency communications cases might also involve a need for financial assistance, such as a plane ticket to get home for a funeral.

Currently, in a large number of cases, emergency communications messages are delivered within an hour, but depending on the request and the emergency situation, "it takes maybe an hour or two to get the message on its way," Boleyn said.  It may take longer, for example, if the request comes in on a Friday night.

"Our main goal is to make sure we provide accurate information to the commander in the field," said Red Cross spokesman Peter Macias.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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