Every veteran is affected for life by his or her service. They serve their country at a price. While true that some vets parlay their military experience into a decent civilian existence, many need more support to get there. Many face housing crises, physical and mental health problems, employment issues, relationship challenges and struggles when attempting to access their benefits—immediately after service but also in the years to come.
It’s not a pretty picture:
On any given night, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 76,000 veterans are sleeping on American streets. Veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than other Americans. Currently, about 1.5 million veterans are at-risk of homelessness. Most are single males from poor communities. However, homelessness among female veterans is also on the rise. In fact, the Department of Housing and Urban Development says that female veterans are four times more likely to become homeless than male veterans, and the VA reports that veteran women comprise the fastest-growing segment of the population of veterans experiencing homelessness.
Most homeless veterans are ages 18-30. More than 50 percent are African-American or Hispanic, and more than 50 percent are disabled. Half suffer from mental illness; two-thirds from substance abuse; and many from “dual diagnosis,” struggling with both mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, homeless vets experience homelessness longer than non-veterans: an average of nearly six years compared to four years for non-veterans.
Veterans become homeless due to poverty, lack of support networks, social isolation and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.
Veterans have low marriage rates and high divorce rates. Currently, 1 in 5 veterans lives alone. Nearly half a million vets are severely rent burdened, paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent. More than half of veterans burdened by such housing costs fall below the poverty level; 43 percent receive food stamps.
The VA is the U.S. government’s Dutch boy with his finger in the dike when it comes to tackling the homeless issue. With an estimated 500,000 veterans homeless at some time during the year, the VA reaches only 20 percent of those in need, leaving 400,000 veterans without supportive services. Because Congress skimps on funds for veterans, the agency’s homeless vets program emphasizes collaboration with community service providers who themselves are woefully short of adequate resources.
Mental Illness and Suicide
In 2021, research revealed that 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 had died by suicide. Military and veteran suicide rates are four times higher than deaths from military operations. Veterans constitute 6 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 16 percent of suicides.
While substance abuse is the highest suicide risk, mental health disorders among veterans are a close second, particularly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), clinical and bipolar depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Dual diagnosis (see above) is common. It is estimated that up to half of returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets have a mental health diagnosis.
The MISSION Act of 2018 doubled the VA’s ability to address these issues, but even these enhanced resources fall far short of the need.
The history of the Veterans Crisis Line (988) demonstrates the demand for suicide prevention services. It was launched in 2007 in Canandaigua, New York (my home town) staffed by 14 trained responders. Today more than 500 responders work out of the VA Medical Center in Canandaigua and two other call center locations. The 7.5 million calls and texts they have handled to date underscores the size of the problem.
The Benefits Maze
Almost half of the 1.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking disability compensation. The average wait to get a disability claim processed is now eight months. Payments range from $127/month for a 10 percent disability to $2,769 for a full disability.
Despite its generally good intentions, the VA is a bureaucracy with all of the negatives that portends for veterans seeking to navigate its monumentally complex labyrinth of benefit procedures. Moreover, veterans’ benefits and policies constantly change and become more complex from year to year—identifying what’s available, how to file the right claims, how to manage appeals and how to see the process through to a conclusion.
Navigating the VA Healthcare System
The VA healthcare system is difficult to navigate. Many veterans need help wending their way through it. Moreover, many, especially those living in rural areas, don’t have a VA facility nearby. Regardless of location, vets experience long wait times at VA facilities. While organizations like the Disabled American Veterans and other veterans groups can help, there is no way they have enough expert advocates to help everyone. Moreover, when vets appeal to their congressional representatives for assistance, the results are often lacking. Congressional staffers assigned this task are usually early 20-somethings who lack both the life experience and knowledge of the military and VA policies and procedures essential to effective advocacy and resolution of these matters.
Civilian society is clueless about the sacrifices veterans have made on its behalf and cares even less. it is no surprise that veterans are disrespected. And when a former president disparages the military (“suckers and losers”) and has nothing but contempt for millions of disabled vets, small wonder that his disdain trickles down to his followers.
Congress is essential to providing solutions. However, since only 82 members (18.9 percent) of the current Congress have served in the military, it naturally follows that Congress does nothing to correct a dire situation that is also a moral imperative. This must be rectified.
December 15, 2023