An interviewer from FindLaw, a ThomsonReuters business, talked with Chris Loiacano of The Rep for Vets® about his work with veterans. The account below summarizes that conversation.
Working at The Rep for Vets®
What is your current position? I am director of operations for The Rep for Vets®. I handle everything - deciding which cases we take, closing files, identifying strategies for obtaining the highest possible benefits, and managing the staff here at the office in Tampa, Florida.
I am also a VA-certified claims agent. I have passed the test and have the required educational qualifications. This means that the Department of Veterans Affairs has determined that I am able to assist veterans with their claims for disability.
How did you get started as an advocate? I started out by working for Charles and Harry Binder, family friends who handled Social Security Disability cases. They invited me to join their company when I graduated from college. I became a certified non-attorney representative for SSD claims.
When they subsequently established The Rep for Vets®, Charles and Harry asked me to help them get the company going. I designed forms, developed procedures and got the Tampa office set up.
I had cousins in the military, one on active duty in the Navy, another in Army intelligence. Hearing about their lives gave me some insight into what veterans go through and made me want to help. Of course, Charles Binder is a very persuasive guy who knew that this would be a great fit for me.
What did you do before working for The Rep for Vets? I have worked in this field, either with SSD claims or with VA disability claims, since I graduated from SUNY-Cortland (State University of New York at Cortland.) Before then, I had the usual type of high school job of working as a sales associate for Model's Sporting Goods.
Did anything in your education or training prepare you for this job? I was a history major in college. I learned how to do historical research and enjoyed it. This type of research is an important part of my job today. I need to find out where the vet applying for benefits served and document the incidents that led to the injury or illness. This research provides the evidence that a veteran needs to support a disability claim.
When I was in college, I took a class on the history of the Vietnam War. That certainly influenced me, and it has been very useful because many of the veterans who need help from The Rep for Vets® served during that war.
What are the positives and negatives about the job? The major negative is the travel required to go to hearings and the long days. I have gone to 47 of the 50 states so far, which is both very interesting and very tiring.
On the positive side, there's the sense of fulfillment when we win a case. We have been able to get significant retroactive benefits for vets. This can be life-changing. In some instances, it has meant that a veteran no longer needs to live on the streets, which is huge.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to help vets obtain benefits? Absolutely the first thing would be to learn how to be patient. The process of applying or filing appeals is like hitting your head against a wall. It takes a long time, period. Clients will be upset because they really need the benefits right away.
The second thing is to know the process and the client's case thoroughly. In fact, you need to know the case better than the client does so that you can advise the client about the best strategy - sometimes clients have incorrect ideas about how to file or appeal claims. There's a lot of information out there. Some of it is not accurate, and you have to be able to give clients the right information.
Is there something in your background that makes you particularly suited for this job? I am patient. Also, I am somewhat of a chameleon. This means I can get along with everyone and am able to explain things so that everyone understands. I also have acquired a fair amount of medical knowledge, which helps me know what to look for in a vet's medical records.
What is the most important thing you can do for a veteran who comes to you for help with a claim or an appeal for VA disability benefits? I try to provide accurate information, both about what we have done to further a claim and about the general process of claiming benefits. As I said before, there's a lot of bad information out there. A vet should not need to know everything - that's my job.
What is the most common question or concern of veterans who come to The Rep for Vets? The most common question is usually "How long will it take?" Unfortunately, the answer is almost always, "It depends." It depends on the facts of the case and the regional office that is handling the claim or appeal. I advise veterans that they should be prepared to wait for several years. That is one of the negatives about the job. That is not what a veteran wants to hear.
Are there differences between the branches of the armed forces that influence how you handle a claim? It is always the same for every branch. In some instances, the situation makes things more challenging - for example, Navy vets may have a tougher time because of the shifting definition of what constitutes an inland waterway in Vietnam. This is particularly important these days when dealing with Agent Orange claims resulting from service in Vietnam.
What kind of specialized knowledge do you need to help veterans effectively? I have developed presentation skills so I can tell the story of a veteran's case effectively. Medical knowledge also really helps.
What is the most difficult thing you have had to do while working with veterans? Waiting. It's hard for vets to wait, but it's also hard for the person handling the case. The other thing that is very hard is losing a veteran while waiting for benefits - either because of their condition or because they committed suicide. Sadly, this happens all too frequently. And when the veteran who died has no dependents, the money that he or she should have won is just gone - it doesn't go to anyone.
Are there any cases that particularly stand out or were memorable? The cases that really stand out are those that took a very long time. For example, I had one client who had been trying to establish a mental health condition. It took 10 years, but he finally obtained a significant award - hundreds of thousands - in back compensation. And of course, I remember those cases where the veteran died or committed suicide before obtaining any benefits.
When I'm Not Working
Is there some other job you would like to have someday that does not involve working with veterans? I would like to get better at golf, but I don't think anyone is going to pay me to do that.
I played hockey in college, but no one is going to pay me to do that either.
I do love to travel, which is fortunate because that is a huge part of my job. Just in the past few weeks, I have been in Waco, Texas; Georgia; West Palm Beach; Boise, Idaho; and New Orleans. I love seeing different parts of the United States and my job with The Rep for Vets® takes me everywhere. I don't think I could find a better job.
What would you like to do when you retire (if you do retire)? I would like to get better at golf, even if no one pays me to do it! I would like to travel outside the country now that I have seen a great deal of the U.S. I would like to play some of the best golf courses out there. I would like to have a country house somewhere on a lake where I could have a boat.
If you wrote your memoirs, what would you focus on? I think I would emphasize my passion for winning, whether it's a disability benefits case or playing Monopoly. But I know that being passionate about winning doesn't actually make me win, so I am also always very well-prepared and would want to talk about that, too.
What is your biggest accomplishment? Easily my biggest accomplishment is working with The Rep for Vets®, helping it get started and continuing as its director of operations.
Is there something you wish you had done differently? Any regrets? I wish I could spend more time on each case and with each client. But I have had to learn how to be efficient with my time - there are just not enough hours in the day.