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How Many Wakeup Calls Will It Take For Vets To Get The Help They Deserve?

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VETERANS BENEFITS
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By Sean J. Miller, TakePart

Corey Wynn was among the thousands of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who had trouble finding work after leaving the military in 2010. The former Alabama Army National Guardsman was laid off from a security company, which had been his only steady job since leaving the service. It wasn’t until last summer when he met Bob Gossett, a specialist with the Alabama Disabled Veterans Outreach Program, that his luck changed.

Gossett drove Wynn to businesses where he could pass out resumes, and told Wynn to list him as a reference. “If [veterans] are having trouble finding a job, they need to contact all the organizations that help out veterans because they really will help you,” Wynn, who landed a job making sheet rock for the U.S. Gypsum Co., told the American Forces Press Service.

Wynn’s experience as a military policeman in Iraq from 2009 to 2010 might seem as though it were a world away from the mission of another recent veteran, a former Navy SEAL whose story was chronicled by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The SEAL is reputed to be the man who pulled the trigger on the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. As such, he is one of the most elite servicemen ever to quit the armed forces.

Still, the two are united by the same confusion and sense of aloneness that confronts many veterans after leaving the military—what to do for work, where to live, how to get healthcare and how to manage the government bureaucracy designed to help them can all seem like impermeable barriers. Their stories speak volumes to the isolation some vets feel after coming home.

In “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden... Is Screwed,” a piece published in Esquire, the Navy SEAL is referred to as the Shooter. The Shooter is purported to be the soldier who killed Osama bin Laden during the SEAL Team 6 raid on the 9-11 terror architect’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011. The article notes that since his retirement, the Shooter faces uncertain job prospects and won’t receive full military retirement benefits because he left after 16 years of service instead of the 20 that are necessary for full benefits.

“Here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family,” Phil Bronstein writes.

“The legacy costs of war for the people who served there is forever.”

But the reality may be less stark. A follow up by Stars and Stripes notes that veterans get five years of free healthcare after leaving the military through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Moreover, there’s a growing web of services available to veterans. The hard part, advocates say, is getting access to the right ones.

“There are veterans that don’t know about some of the benefits that they get,” Scott Raab, director of outreach for Move America Forward, a “pro-troops” advocacy organization, tells TakePart. “That’s a very real thing. There are so many younger guys that join up very young, and they just want to do one tour and they’re out. Losing the structure sometimes is a problem.”

Without the structure and support of the band of brothers, the trauma of war has left many veterans prone to suicide. According to a tally by The Guardian, 6,500 former American military personnel killed themselves in 2012. Among the active duty military, 349 service members took their lives—more than those killed in combat in Afghanistan.

According to Jon Soltz, an Army veteran and cofounder of the VoteVets.org advocacy group, the suicide rate for the military has been exacerbated by long wait times for services brought on in 2010 when the Obama administration fast-tracked nearly a quarter million claims from Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange. “They added more people to the claims backlog,” says Soltz.

Soltz says veterans groups will have to fight to maintain funding as Congress looks to cut spending amid the negotiations on the budget sequester. “The legacy costs of war for the people who served there is forever,” he tells TakePart.

The backlog of vets waiting for their claims to be heard by the VA could get worse before it gets better. On Tuesday, President Obama announced in his State of the Union address that almost half of the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be coming home during the course of the year. “And by the end of next year,” he said, “our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

That’ll mean thousands more vets needing government services, and thousands of more vets—with experiences and job skills ranging from Wynn’s to the Shooter’s—looking for work. Unfortunately, statistics show veterans have a higher rate of unemployment than the civilian norm. More than 200,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan wars were out of work last year. The unemployment rate for veterans was 9.9 percent in 2012—about two percent higher than the national average, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Obama administration has recognized the problem. During a July campaign stop in Reno, Nevada, the president announced “Transitions GPS,” the first overhall in two decades of the military’s Transition Assistance Program that helps veterans reintegrate into civilian life.

But as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq come to a gradual end, there’s the risk that veterans trickling home piecemeal will drift from the national consciousness. Raab, the veteran’s advocate who served in the Navy, vows that won’t happen.

“The number of supporters out there who just want to help military veterans is strong,” he says. “I don’t think we’re in danger of losing that at all. If anything, I think there’s now a more renewed sense of making sure that once they are home they’re being taken care of.”

Still, stories like the Shooter’s give him pause.

“We just want to make sure that no one is in a position where they feel that they’re on their own,” Raab says. “The truth is they’ve fought for their country and their country is going to fight for them to make sure they’re okay.”

This story originally appeared on TakePart.

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