Many of us have read or heard some grim news concerning U.S. servicemembers and veterans in recent months: the March massacre of 17 Afghani civilians by a U.S. Army sergeant, the skyrocketing suicide rates among soldiers. These news stories shock our consciousness, provoke outrage, and focus attention on military mental health issues, at least for a short time.
Unfortunately, the exceptional stories may create a skewed portrait of the troops returning home; the reality is that most of our veterans are coming back healthy, ready and eager to reintegrate into civilian life.
But veterans and their families need support as they make the transition home. The estimated 100,000 New Yorkers who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan are residents of our communities; a huge proportion of them are returning to neighborhoods, rather than to military bases. So it's no surprise that most veterans say they need and want more community-based resources as they reintegrate into their lives and families. A needs assessment found that half of New York State's veterans prefer to receive health care, mental health, and social services in their communities, rather than at VA health care centers.
The VA does devote a portion of its resources to community-based services. In 2011, it awarded $60 million in grants to community-based organizations nationwide to provide supportive services for veteran families, with $100 million expected to be awarded through the program in 2012. But those numbers are miniscule relative to the need. If the VA shifted some additional resources to community-based programs, veterans and their families would have better access to the types of services they say they need and want.
But meeting the needs of returning veterans is not solely a military issue. Health care providers, social service agencies, government agencies, veteran-serving organizations, educational institutions, and businesses all have a role to play in supporting veterans and their families during the reintegration process. Ensuring that military families have access to the health care, mental health, and social services and the education, housing, and employment opportunities they need to stay healthy and whole will require collaboration and coordination among all of those sectors.
What else is needed? First, increased awareness about the needs and preferences of veterans and their families, and better understanding among military families about the services that are available to them. Forty-two percent of New York's returning veterans say they don't have a clear idea of the benefits and resources available to them.
We also need to understand and reduce the barriers that may prevent returning veterans from seeking and receiving the services they need and want. Building up knowledge and skills related to military issues among the professionals who deliver health care, mental health, and social services is an important part of reducing those barriers and meeting the unique needs of military families. And more outreach to veterans, particularly through their peers, is a key strategy for connecting them to the services they need and want.
As we approach Memorial Day, we honor the memory of our fallen military heroes, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. But we must also remember those who are returning from war, and the families who welcome them home. They, too, have served and sacrificed, and they deserve the support and resources needed to stay healthy and whole in their home communities across New York State.