Veterans returning home from combat may be eligible for a broad range of public benefits, but the transition from service member to veteran can be emotionally and psychologically challenging for some. Veterans returning from war may have debilitating physical and/or mental health problems, making it difficult to navigate the complex web of public benefits, especially disability benefits. Furthermore, every veteran has an individual experience of the transition to civilian life, during which time it may be difficult for veterans and their families to seek the services they need. For example, some veterans may not be ready to schedule appointments with benefit service application assistants while they are still working to return to their daily routines. Veterans at this stage in their reentry may also find it difficult to read and digest large amounts of materials related to benefit services or make decisions about what benefits they would like to receive. Some returning veterans may also lack a sound support network to help engage them in the benefits application process (Overton et al. 2010).
Veterans’ families could also be eligible for a vast array or programs but might not be aware of them. Many veterans, especially those in the National Guard, earn more while in the military than they can earn in civilian employment, leaving their families especially vulnerable. Even when veterans and their families are aware of and ready to access benefits, tools may not exist to help them do so. Many programs specific to the needs of veterans and their families are not incorporated into existing web-based benefits access tools. Of the 86 web-based benefits access efforts identified in the scan completed under this contract, only 6 specifically included any veterans benefit programs; only one of the case study efforts (ACCESS NYC) included any veterans benefits, but access through the online tool was limited to a city and state of New York Individual Property Tax Exemption for veterans.
In addition, returning and older veterans face barriers to engaging in benefit services similar to those of many of the other populations discussed in this paper, including lack of stable housing, geographic barriers, issues related to stigma, and mental health disorders and substance abuse problems. Veterans with mental illness and substance abuse disorders made up 15.4 percent of all veterans using the Veterans Health Administration in 2007 (Watkins et al 2011). Further, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine on mental health disorders and barriers to care for soldiers who served early in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts reported that only a small percentage of soldiers reporting mental health disorders had received mental health care services (Hoge et al. 2004).
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimated that in 2009, 131,000 veterans were homeless on any given night (Khadduri et al., 2010), and that as many as 260,000 veterans experienced homelessness over the course of that year. Indeed, in 2010, 13 percent of all adults living in shelters were veterans and 16 percent of homeless adults (i.e., persons living on the street, in transitional housing or shelters) were veterans (Khadduri et al. 2010). Veterans living in rural areas frequently experience geographic barriers to services (Schooley et al. 2010). A study of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan veteran facilities used by homeless veterans showed that, overall, nonmetropolitan homeless veterans access care less than their metropolitan counterparts (Gordon et al. 2010). The VA, a member of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), has developed a five-year plan to expand existing services available to veterans, develop new initiatives to keep veterans from entering homelessness, and treat those currently homeless (Dougherty and Smits 2009). The five-year plan focuses on developing services in six strategic areas, including outreach and education, treatment, prevention, housing and supportive services, income and employment benefits, and community partnerships. This initiative, included in "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," aims to connect veterans with services at any point of contact they make with service agencies, be it a regional office or community organization.
Given these barriers and needs, veterans and their families might benefit from the following:
- Application assistance provided by any organization with which veterans make contact, be it a veterans organization or other community organizations
- More comprehensive tools, such as the Veterans’ Benefits Online Tool Project being developed by Disability Benefits 101 Information Services (DB101) with funding from the California Health Incentives Improvement Project (this tool provides veterans with a specific and individual summary of available benefits by filling out a short web-based survey; this type of tool, used on its own or in tandem with a counselor, can help to link veterans to individualized services (Overton et al. 2010))
- Outreach and application assistance to families at VA Yellow Ribbon educational events and training for family assistance counselors