September 28, 2021

The Role of County Veteran Service Officers

An Assessment

By Katherine L. Kuzminski, Nathalie Grogan and Elena LoRusso

Executive Summary

This assessment examines the role of county veteran service officers (CVSOs) throughout the United States. The report highlights the services and support available to veterans via CVSOs around the country, and compares their effectiveness against the help offered by staff through other types of veteran service organizations (VSOs). CVSOs provide resources to veterans at the local level, and their roles and experiences vary according to the state- and federal-level VSOs available in that area. Using quantitative analysis, the effectiveness of CVSOs is measured through grant rates of disability compensation claims submitted, as compared to those submitted by state and nonprofit VSOs. This report examines the effectiveness, challenges, barriers, and resources that CVSOs face when serving veterans in their jurisdictions.

Among the most significant findings:

  • Many veterans, including those living in counties with CVSOs, are unaware of the role that CVSOs play and the resources available to them at the county level.
  • There is a discrepancy in what CVSOs are responsible for in their duties and what they are resourced to do.
  • While they represent a small percentage of the total claims submitted, disability compensation claims submitted by CVSOs are increasing in number and have a higher rate of success than those submitted by state- level and nonprofit VSOs.
  • CVSO responsibilities and experiences vary widely between states and counties.
  • The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has greatly complicated the role of CVSOs, with a decrease in the number of veterans served since March 2020.

Introduction

Veteran services are provided by federal, state, and local governments, along with a range of nonprofit organizations. The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), provides the most well-known services, including healthcare, GI Bill education benefits, and financial compensation through pensions, disability claims, employment services, and/or case management, respectively. Individual states also have their own departments of veterans’ affairs and offer an array of independent support services such as help with taxes, employment, and legal consultation. State and local governments coordinate federal government assistance within their jurisdictions. Veteran-serving nonprofit organizations provide on-the-ground assistance as well. VSOs range from local niche groups to large national organizations, including the “Big Six,” the oldest and largest of such organizations: American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, American Veterans (AMVETS), and Vietnam Veterans of America. Student Veterans of America (SVA) represents the 750,000 veterans who are pursuing higher education.

While much attention has been paid to federal, state, and nonprofit services, there is little research on the role of local governments, particularly at the county level. Unique to that level is the use of county veteran service officers who operate in 24 percent of counties throughout the nation. Working as VA-accredited VSOs, CVSOs sit at the county level in 749 of the 3,132 counties (or county equivalents) across 29 states. They provide a variety of services to veterans living in their jurisdictions, including but not limited to disability compensation, employment assistance, education eligibility and benefits, VA health care eligibility and assistance, mental health resources, financial support, housing resources, caregiver and family support, and death and burial benefits. Their responsibilities vary widely by state, region, and even locality, because resources, opportunities, demographics, regulation, and legislation limit CVSOs and their staffs. They work within a broader ecosystem of state-level benefits, federal resources, and nonprofit organizations in order to best serve the veterans near them. Due to the wide variety of resources and responsibilities, the effectiveness and availability of CVSOs varies enormously between counties.

While much attention has been paid to federal, state, and nonprofit services, there is little research on the role of local governments, particularly at the county level.

A comparison of counties with CVSOs reveals that job descriptions, employment requirements, and management structures vary. In seeking to fill a gap in research about CVSOs and their impact on the U.S. veteran population, this report examines the geographic distribution, roles and duties performed, and effectiveness of CVSOs. Following background information on CVSOs, the methodology used for analysis is outlined. After presenting the findings, this report concludes with recommendations for better integrating CVSOs into the broader veteran support landscape. Key stakeholders at issue include the Department of Veterans Affairs, state and local governments, CVSO organizations, and veteran-serving nonprofits. Finally, three appendices offer specific details regarding how the research was conducted.

Only limited research has been focused on county-level veteran services. One analysis of CVSOs described them as “the at-home, back-to-the-community stop for veterans who have served the nation . . . they are the local link in an intergovernmental chain serving the country’s 21.8 million veterans.” Media coverage of CVSOs, which is also limited, describes the patchwork nature of their operation and the wide variety of services available at the county level, depending on resources and location. Individual states’ studies of their jurisdiction’s veteran services often highlight the role of CVSOs in the overall landscape. CNAS consulted a variety of sources to determine the extent of CVSO-specific information, including VA reports; state-level veterans’ services reports; federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs); local, state, and national veteran needs assessments; National Association of Counties veteran coverage; and national reporting.

The lack of CVSO-specific research and studies prompted CNAS to generate original research on an underreported topic. While existing literature acknowledges the potential role of CVSOs in veteran outcomes, no comprehensive study of the issue has been carried out before this one.

This report builds upon previous CNAS work assessing veteran-serving nonprofits, state-level veteran benefits, and municipal veteran services. Accounting for the resources available through these institutions, the report also examines challenges faced by each type of veteran-serving space. The CNAS assessment of CVSOs is intended to fill the gap and highlight an often overlooked type of veteran support, in order to raise awareness of what is available to veterans at the county level, and to highlight the challenges that CVSOs face.

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  1. National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, “County Directory,” https://www.nacvso.org/directory/directory_5.aspx. This data includes the statistical equivalent of counties in states that use different terminology: boroughs and census areas in Alaska; parishes in Louisiana; independent cities in Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; St. Louis City, Missouri; Yellowstone National Park, Montana; and Carson City, Nevada. U.S. Census Bureau, States, Counties, and Statistically Equivalent Entities, https://www2.census.gov/geo/pdfs/reference/GARM/Ch4GARM.pdf.
  2. Bev Schlotterbeck, “A Closer Look at the Role of the County Veterans Service Officer,” CountyNews, National Association of Counties, November 2, 2015, https://www.naco.org/articles/closer-look-role-county-veterans-service-officer.
  3. Aaron P. Bernstein, “Without Help, Navigating Benefits Can Be Overwhelming for Veterans,” NPR, January 14, 2015, https://www.npr.org/2015/01/14/374055310/indiana-s-veterans-service-officers-operate-on-a-shoe-string.
  4. Emma Moore, Margaret Seymour, Jared Stefani, Kelly Kennedy, and Kayla Williams, “Funding Flows in the Sea of Goodwill: An Analysis of Major Funders in the Veteran-Serving Nonprofit Space” (Center for a New American Security, June 18, 2019), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/funding-flows-in-the-sea-of-goodwill; Carole House, Emma Moore, Brent Peabody, and Kayla Williams, “From Sea to Shining Sea: State-Level Bene- fits for Veterans” (Center for a New American Security, November 11, 2019), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/from-sea-to-shining-sea; Emma Moore, Jared Stefani, and Kayla Williams, “Survey of Municipal Veteran Services” (Center for a New American Security, August 21, 2019), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/survey-of-municipal-veteran-services.

Authors

  • Katherine L. Kuzminski

    Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Katherine L. Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. Her research s...

  • Nathalie Grogan

    Research Assistant, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Nathalie Grogan is the Research Assistant for the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, she interned ...

  • Elena LoRusso

    Intern, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Elena LoRusso is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Military, Veterans, & Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, ...

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