Vets, service providers discuss challenges of civilian life


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Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich hosts a roundtable to discuss veterans’ issues July 2 at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage. The topics included better communication of benefits to veterans, education aid, transitioning to civilian life and combating homelessness.

Photo/Molly Dischner/AJOC

A roundtable discussion between Sen. Mark Begich and several representatives of veterans’ organizations and service providers focused largely on the need for better communication about benefits and more streamlined services.

Veterans also talked about proposed changes to the program meant to help prepare military members for civilian life.

Begich held the July 2 roundtable at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage to better gauge how Alaska’s veterans are doing, and what is needed, particularly for the youngest veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We must address the unique needs of this current generation of veterans, particularly during their transition to civilian life,” Begich said. “When I look at the needs of these veterans, it’s not just providing individuals with access to necessary care and services, but also providing their families with the support they need.

“We have far more service members with families today and like any family they are struggling with childcare costs and family needs — while also trying to successfully transition to civilian life. There are things we can — and must — do to support these veterans and their families and that is what today’s event was all about.”

Stephanie Smithson, program director for Homeless Family Services at Catholic Social Services, said one of the biggest issues is making sure veterans know about the available benefits and how to access them.

Other participants agreed. Jennifer Baker, a military spouse who works with Hope For Heroes, said her organization encounters a lot of veterans who need help just covering basic expenses, like buying food and paying utility bills.

“They don’t know any of the benefits they can receive,” she said.

Eric Warner, a counselor at the Vets Center, said the VA is supposed to have peer navigators to help veterans navigate the system, but that he hasn’t been able to figure out who holds those three positions at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

There is a program meant to help address the transition from military service to civilian life — the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP.

TAP includes an employment workshop and other information meant to help service members navigate their benefits and the civilian world.

But Veteran Bryan Box, president of the University of Alaska Anchorage Student Veterans Association, said that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, it just “vomits information at them,” and departing service members can’t retain enough of it to be useful.

Some soldiers are trying to take TAP while still deployed, making it particularly difficult to focus on the new information, said UAA Military and Veterans Assistant Nichole Grunwald, who is also a veteran.

Warner added that while it’s a requirement that 100 percent of troops receive outgoing counsel, that doesn’t happen in practice.

One audience member, however, said that part of the issue is that different supervisors have different views on TAP. His enabled him to go for nearly a decade before he left the service. Other supervisors, however, don’t help military members make time for the course.

TAP was recently revised after Congress directed the Department of Defense to do so, but those revisions haven’t necessarily solved all of its problems. Begich said he would ask the DOD whether the revisions were suggested internally, or veterans were consulted to find out what information and structure would have helped them.

Participants also talked about some of the issues facing veterans, such as homelessness, finding jobs, education and mental health.

Begich asked the participants if it would be helpful if education benefits were easier to use outside of public colleges.

Most agreed, and Warner said that when institutions have different timelines than public colleges, it can be difficult to make the benefits work out, like at Northern Industrial Training, which offers a shorter program but is more expensive during the time it runs.

Roundtable participants also talked about the growing number of homeless veterans.

“That is becoming a complicated problem,” Begich said.

Warner said that the criteria for housing assistance can be problematic. Some programs consider veterans homeless if they are “couchsurfing.” Others only consider them homeless if they are living outside, in a camp.

Warner said at times he’s had to recommend that individuals stop staying with friends and move outdoors so they can get help. Smithson said that couchsurfing is just considered at an “imminent risk” for homelessness, and not truly homeless.

Warner said that mental health issues are often a component of other problems veterans face, but it’s difficult to address them until a vet has a roof over his or her head.

Baker said that sometimes military members return straight from a deployment to home life, and families aren’t necessarily prepared to help the returning service member cope. When her husband returned, she didn’t receive any information about what his transition might be like, she said.

Baker said there’s also a stigma against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, that can make it difficult for veterans to get a job or adjust to family life.

“I think a lot of that goes back to the mental health issues,” she said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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