With growing numbers of veterans returning from overseas and transitioning out of the armed services, the Veterans Administration is falling behind on a number of metrics, including the basic need to process vets waiting for benefits. The growing backlog of veterans waiting for help reflects on the U.S. as a national shame, and the VA is not showing signs of being ready to adapt with innovative forms of outreach, development and commitment to the men and women who served the U.S. valiantly, whether they spent their entire service based in the U.S., or endured multiple tours overseas.
A particularly stark example arises in the case of an obvious site for interventions and services: schools and colleges. Many veterans attend college after leaving the armed services, taking advantage of their GI Bill benefits to access educational opportunities. Paired with military experience, education can help veterans prepare for the civilian workplace and develop marketable skills that will serve them well in the years to come — but they still need VA services to succeed.
Veterans in college environments can face issues like ongoing health problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and trouble with developing study skills and life skills; issues like exploitative lending targeting veterans, for example, are ongoing in many parts of the United States. Providing veterans’ centers on campuses would be an obvious way to help vets access services easily and efficiently as part of their college experience, easing the transition into the civilian world and helping veterans achieve higher completion rates. The dropout rate for veterans is extremely high, making it clear that the services provided in educational settings aren’t adequate to their needs.
Thus, services like the City College of San Francisco’s veterans center could make a huge difference for veterans struggling in school and having trouble with their lives. Staffed by social work and psychiatric providers, the clinic helps vets navigate the college experience and access services at off-site VA locations. Brilliant, right? Bringing services to people directly in their communities is one of the best ways to ensure that they actually use those services.
If you think this is an innovative pilot program by the VA, you’d be wrong; City College pushed for the center and was the driving source behind its development. Even though it’s performing very well and offering a valuable service to veterans on campus, it’s not the brainchild of the VA, and the administration is moving slowly when it comes to getting it out of the early stages, just as it’s lagging on other services for veterans:
The initiative remains in the pilot stage, with a $2.8 million annual budget. Funds go only to schools where both the local VA and a college administrator express interest, not necessarily to those with the greatest needs. At nearly all schools with the largest veteran populations, the VA is providing no health services.
Overall, 6,000 veterans have had access to such centers, a fraction of those who need the services, and a fraction of those leaving the armed services. This is something that needs to change, and quickly, because veterans are struggling significantly in school; in addition to having a high attrition rate, they’re also prone to behavioral outbursts, difficulty completing courses, trouble integrating in school and difficulty establishing safe living conditions. Simple interventions like these centers can make the difference between life and death for vets with psychiatric needs, or they can differentiate between success and failure for those who need some extra support while they get on their feet.
There’s another benefit to making campuses veteran-friendly: it encourages more veterans to enroll, and creates a culture of mutual support. As veterans exchange stories and tips, they create a strong social network that can help them succeed in both school and life, which can be a powerful part of their transition. With such win-win balances, the VA’s decision to delay the rollout of such services on a more extensive nation-wide level is puzzling, and troubling: do we really value vets so little?
Photo credit: Beverly.