Giving Back to Our Returning Veterans

As Veterans Day approaches, I have been reflecting on how we honor -- and dishonor -- the veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have crowds with signs and balloons and yellow ribbons and cameras welcoming veterans home as they step off that plane; we have parades and sales at the mall a couple of times a year in honor of their service. But as veterans and their families settle back into life at home together, I fear we still fall short and fail too many of the servicemembers who have sacrificed so much.

We have been hearing for years about what the RAND Corporation calls the "invisible wounds of war": the mental health and substance use disorders that plague many of our returning veterans. Here in New York, nearly one-quarter of returning veterans have a probable diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Many veterans don't seek treatment for these conditions, some because they are concerned about the persistent stigma of mental health disorders, and others because they don't know what resources are available to them or where to turn for help.

Veterans also need resources and support in the areas of employment, education, housing -- all important for their successful reintegration back home and for their overall health and well-being.

A broad range of community-based services is needed to meet veterans' needs and preferences: peer-to-peer outreach and counseling from other veterans who understand their experience and military culture; job counseling; education counseling; on-campus resources for students; housing services; mental health and substance use services.

We are seeing some progress here, without question. Comprehensive programs for serving veterans and their families are popping up in communities across the country; the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, NY, has been a leading force in this area. Networks of veterans, like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, are helping each other find local resources and services through hotlines and online communities. And, importantly, the VA is focusing more attention and more dollars on community-based resources, especially for the most vulnerable veterans and their families. The VA is spending $1 billion this year on programs run by community-based organizations to prevent and address homelessness among veterans, and has committed to a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.

But all of this activity is still just sprinkled here and there; most communities don't have a resource like the Veterans Outreach Center, and veterans and their families aren't sure where to turn when they need help. So what would it take to ensure that every community serves its veterans well?

1. Energy and action by a range of community stakeholders. Everyone has a role to play in serving veterans and their families; we cannot dodge this responsibility by saying it's the government's job. Veteran families are part of our schools, our workplaces, our faith communities, and our neighborhoods. When it comes to ensuring their health and well-being, a range of stakeholders -- health care providers, academic institutions, social service agencies, community-based organizations, businesses, philanthropic organizations, government -- should be engaged and involved.

2. Local leadership. A broad network of players that care about our returning veterans is critical, but someone needs to take the lead by coordinating services and serving as a central resource hub for veterans and families. This could be a community-based organization like the Veterans Outreach Center or a local social service agency, or it could be a business, a community health center, a hospital, or a community foundation. When you see a community that has a highly regarded local organization show leadership in working with veterans, you generally find that others in the community get involved in efforts that help veterans transition to life after military service.

3. Local funders. In New York City, with leadership from the Robin Hood Foundation, local businesses, foundations, and individual funders have all come together to invest in building up community-based capacity to meet the needs of returning veterans and their families. Within nearly any foundation's mission -- whether it's focused on education or health or employment or economic development -- is room for activity to support some aspect of the needs of returning veterans and their families.

4. Sustained leadership from elected officials. While local resources are helpful, the key sources of funding to meet the needs of returning veterans are the programs run by the federal Veterans Administration. Our elected officials need to persistently make the case that a greater share of these federal resources should be allocated to community-based providers, given that this is where so many veterans are seeking services. The large VA hospitals and other VA programs play important roles, but by themselves they will not reach enough veterans. Our leaders need to push the VA to recognize the larger roles that could be played by non-VA community-based providers.

With these four elements in place, more communities across New York and across the country can have a real and lasting impact on the health and well-being of our returning veterans and their families. That beats a parade any day.