The young veterans returning home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan relate differently with each other, with veterans groups and with the Department of Veterans Affairs than their predecessors. Although half of Maine’s veterans are under the age of 35, the state Bureau of Veterans Services is still largely equipped to reach out to and help out older veterans rather than those who have recently returned home from duty.
One consequence is that half of Maine’s veterans are not receiving the services and benefits to which they are entitled. Of the estimated 140,000 veterans in Maine, fewer than half have enrolled with the Veterans Administration. As a result, they are not getting services and benefits they earned, and the state has little way of knowing where they live or what they might need in terms of help with housing, employment or medical care.
A recent report from a legislative commission takes on this problem and recommends more outreach to young veterans — and in ways to which younger veterans respond. The report emphasizes the need for the many entities, both inside and outside of government, that work with veterans to coordinate their efforts, especially with regard to transportation, primarily to medical appointments and housing.
Fortunately, the Bureau of Veterans Services, the state government’s primary public advocate for veterans, has started to heed this message and begun to focus on outreach for a new generation of veterans. The bureau’s first outreach coordinator, Laura Allen, the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, recognizes the importance of physical activity as a point of connection for veterans across the country. Before joining the bureau, Allen founded Maine’s chapter of Team Red, White and Blue, a group that engages veterans through physical activity and community projects.
Across the country, hundreds of groups are devoted to fitness, outdoor recreation and adventure, all with an emphasis on providing veterans with opportunities to bond and have shared experiences with people who understand what they’ve been through.
For Army Reservist David Aston of Bangor, who was deployed to Iraq and then Afghanistan, coming home was difficult. “When you’re back, you feel so isolated. You’re suddenly tossed out of your element,” he told the BDN last year. “If you don’t have somebody there who understands all the time, it’s difficult to get by.”
After struggling with depression, he connected with Team Red, White and Blue. He credits the group with providing the community — and challenges — he needed to reintegrate into civilian life.
To be more successful and to reach more veterans, the Bureau of Veterans Services needs to team up with these types of organizations that have built a level of trust and credibility among veterans that government programs often lack. These groups also tend to be better at reaching young veterans through social media than government entities.
The legislative commission that recently issued its report recommended a similar approach to improving transportation for veterans and reducing homelessness among veterans. Its assessment of efforts to find homes for veterans was blunt: “Success at resolving chronic homelessness among veterans should be determined by actually placing veterans in stable housing, not just creating the capacity to do so.”
There are numerous state and federal programs that help veterans with home purchases and rentals. But veterans often turn to other social service agencies, including homeless shelters, when they need help. The report suggests the creation of a council to ensure that the many entities that help veterans are working together to place homeless veterans in housing.
It is also encouraging that the committee wants to know if the improvements it suggests work. To do this, it calls for funding to move the bureau from paper records to a case management system. This change would save time, better serve veterans and build a database that is now nonexistent.
The report lays out an ambitious agenda for the Bureau of Veterans Services. Its emphasis on partnering with groups that are already engaging with and serving veterans greatly improves the likelihood of success.