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Are States, Cities Ready for a Wave of Veterans?

Human services officials have a lot of work to do to prepare for the return of war vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here's some sobering news straight from the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs: A backlog of nearly 900,000 disability claims -- with more than 65 percent of those claims pending for more than 125 days -- has amassed at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Why should this be alarming news to state and local government officials? Because it's just the beginning of a significant wave of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. These veterans won't just be coming back with the obvious physical disabilities. They'll be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse problems and domestic violence issues, as well as with challenges finding housing and employment. Between the number of vets who need services and the logistics of connecting those vets with VA resources, there is little doubt that a lot of the responsibility will fall to states and localities.

In other words, state and local human services officials -- whether they like it or not and whether they're ready or not -- are going to be involuntarily drafted into caring for and helping veterans. At the same time, state and local officials will be turning to street-level service providers for help.

"Civilians in general don't really get that," says Steve Darman, who runs a veterans services program in upstate New York, and who also chairs a three-county veterans homeless assistance coalition. "They think the VA or the Department of Defense has it covered. But when a veteran comes home, it takes a community. Returning veterans are going to have a huge impact on communities around the country."

The good news is that there is a growing awareness among state and local officials about the impending tsunami of veterans, particularly among those in jurisdictions that either host or are in close proximity to large military bases. Those towns offer everything from job training and therapy to domestic violence and substance abuse prevention.

At the same time, the beefed up GI bill is certainly going to help when it comes to upgrading veterans' skills and education. New York's Darman says there are already 800 veterans enrolled in Monroe County Community College and another 500 at Erie County Community College. He also points to other promising programs for veterans, including a model program in Rochester, N.Y., that offers a wide variety of integrated services, which was started, says Darman, "by a bunch of pissed off Vietnam veterans whose families were breaking up and who couldn't find jobs." In New York City and two upstate counties, officials have launched courts that are just for veterans. They created this model after witnessing an alarming spike in run-ins with the law among veterans.

One thing is clear: A lot of the work being done is by citizen activists, particularly veterans. But it's equally clear that a significant and well-coordinated intergovernmental response is going to be required if veterans are going to get the services they need as they come home.

The feds have shown that they can move in a coordinated fashion on key veterans' issues, like homelessness. Darman's group, in fact, is involved in one of five pilot projects being funded nationally by the VA aimed at eliminating homelessness among veterans. Still, the VA has a startling backlog to clear. For its part, it blames an over-reliance on paper documents as one of the culprits. Officials at the VA say that its new paperless claims system will help the agency get a handle on the backlog. But even if this massive IT overhaul is actually successful, don't expect the VA to magically transform itself into a fabulously efficient bureaucracy finely honed to meet every veteran's needs.

So getting veterans a wide variety of health and human services is going to be crucial. It's not crucial just because we owe it to veterans; veterans, says Darman, have a lot to offer. "[Veterans] have great leadership and organizational skills, and they're not afraid to take risks. They can be amazing assets."

Homepage photo via Shutterstock

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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