James J. Peters
During the leadership of the renowned James J. Peters, who served as United Spinal’s president for three decades between the 1970s and 1990s, the organization helped improve the quality of health care for veterans by winning denied benefits for individual veterans and securing money for VA programs and infrastructure.
Peters’ spent the majority of his career working tirelessly to expose the unfair treatment imposed upon veterans. In 1970, the organization made history when Peters’ persuaded Life Magazine to publish a cover story revealing the appalling conditions that spinal cord injured Vietnam vets were enduring at the Bronx VA Medical Center. The article uncovered a harsh reality and brought the somewhat hidden issues facing veterans to the national stage. Triggering a public outcry and grabbing the attention of leaders in Washington D.C., the Bronx VA Medical Center was completely demolished and rebuilt from the ground up per Congressional order. Renamed in honor of Peters’ in 2005, the hospital now specializes in spinal cord injury care and recovery.
Echoing Peters’ legacy, Meglathery says that in order to see improvements it is imperative to continually spread awareness and keep the public engaged on the unseen struggles of many vets.
“It is not that the American public does not want to support our veterans. In fact, it is quite the opposite,” he says. “However, if the public are not aware of the issues facing the veteran community, then they will not have reason to push their elected officials to act in ways that help veterans.”
A recent successful tool to spread awareness and engage injured vets as well as the general public is the addition of the Ask VetsFirst online helpdesk. Available 24 seven at vetsfirst.org, the helpdesk is a fully stocked online resource center with information on a wide variety of veteran’s issues and topics. Counselors are available to answer questions on every topic ranging from claim appeals to state benefits. A call center is also available to provide a friendly voice, answer questions, provide support and offer guidance.
“What makes it so successful is that it has proven to be a helpful resource beyond our constituency of spinal cord injured veterans,” Meglathery says of the helpdesk. “Essentially, any category of veteran, caretakers, family members, lawyers representing a veteran, and even upon occasion another veterans’ service organization, can email us a question about benefits. We respond within 72 hours. This is a success for them too because in a time where the Department of Veterans Affairs is criticized for being a slow moving bureaucracy, we can assist a constituent in getting an answer accurately and quickly.”
Although commonly acknowledged as a VA service organization, Meglathery says VetsFirst insists on being recognized as a direct representation of veteran’s and their families instead of a formalized government institution and he hopes to engage more vets to join the cause.
“We view our members and their local chapters as our key constituency and resource,” Meglathery says. “It is my desire to be able to grow our veteran membership at the chapter level. Additionally,I would love to hear more from our chapter member veterans and be able to tell their individual story.”
Motivated and armed with ideas, Meglathery has already played an integral role in his short stint as Vice President, helping the organization achieve many recent milestones and accomplishments and he says his goals for the future of the organization are endless.
“I am always trying to find ways where we can help the Department of Veterans Affairs do a better job of serving veterans,” he says. “I spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill working with Congress and the Executive branch. It is my goal is to continue to provide our input to pending legislation. Furthermore, I am working on helping craft new legislation designed to reform certain programs that are not working for veterans. Hopefully, there will be more to follow on this front.”
When asked the importance the organization has had on him and veterans everywhere, Meglathery sums it up plain and simply.
“I would say it means a way of remembering who we are.”
— Maureen Gazda