Council Beefs Up Vets Benefits Budget
With dwindling job prospects, financial and personal problems and a rising suicide suicide rate, some reservists and National Guard members are struggling. Northampton’s veterans agent wants to help.
NORTHAMPTON – Returning veterans, national guardsmen and reservists are having trouble finding jobs, need a variety of financial and personal help and face a rising risk of suicide, City Veterans Agent Steven J. Connor told the City Council Thursday night.
Connor was there to ask for $165,000 from free cash to replenish the Veterans Services Department budget, which began the year at $100,000 and received another $285,000 in October.
During the Finance Committee debate last night, Mayor Mary Clare Higgins put the council on notice that Connor would probably be back again in a few months for another $165,000. She reminded them that the state reimburses the city for 75 percent of all veteran spending.
The funding measure passed 8-0 on both required readings Thursday.
The vote came after Connor painted a tough picture about the mental, emotional and financial stresses on veterans and their families, especially in an economy where jobs are scarce.
Jobs for Citizen Soldiers Are Hard To Find
Although his office has received high praise for its job placement success, Connor said, many employers are reticent to hire active duty soldiers or airmen now in the reserves or National Guard who might be recalled to service.
“They’ve having trouble keeping employment,” he said. “The private sector sits there and says, ‘If I hire this person, they could be gone in a month, they could be activated in six months.’”
Although his office has been busy ministering to veterans seeking services at the VA Medical Center in Leeds, and despite his office’s aggressive outreach program, Connor said, there are many more veterans who need services – financial, counseling or mental health, for example – who aren’t connecting with him or his staff. He said his job is made tougher because the U.S. Defense Department doesn’t publish a list of returning veterans due to privacy laws.
“We would love to talk with everybody who comes home,” said Connor.
”We have to wait for them to come to us. So anybody in the community, if you know somebody who’s serving now, planning to come home, please contact our office, we can make transitions a lot smoother.”
[For a list of frequently asked questions and answers about the services offered through the VA, click here. The office - which also handles veterans in Amherst, Williamsburg and several hilltowns - can be reached by phone at (413) 587-1299, or toll free at 1 (877) 821-0128. Connor can be reached vial email at email@example.com]
Rising Suicide Rate Among Citizen Soldiers
In his comments to the City Council, Connor referenced a recent U.S. Army report that cited a spike in the citizen-soldier suicide rate.
“The Army just announced that there was actually a drop in active-duty members who have committed suicide – not significantly, but it dropped, and that was wonderful. However, the Army Guard and reserves, from last year to this year, doubled.”
Unlike active-duty service men and women, Connor said, those in the reserve or National Guard are under-served by the military when it comes to mental health and other human services.
“They haven’t been getting the same kind of programs that the regular army and the other armed forces have been getting to meet this issue,” he told the council.
“This is a big red flag that says, there’s a lot of guard and reservists out there, whether they’ve returned from battle or before they go, there’s a lot of stresses with them, both financial and emotional. They have family issues. And sometimes relationships, marriages, family matters break up before they even go.”
Connor also reported that a fifth indigent city veteran died last week, wiping out the $10,000 line item in the budget for this fiscal year, which began July 1. The veterans’ office pays a maximum of $2,000 per funeral, or less if there are family members who contribute towards a burial.
“But often. . .unfortunately, (family) ties have been severed through whatever issues they’ve gone through,” Connors said. “Remember, these are indigent veterans and they’ve had their own issues. Usually, there’s no contribution, it’s just us.”
Weaving a Tighter Safety Net
Connor said he has been talking with army and air national guard officials on how to improve services to their members.
And he’s connected with the city’s religious community in an effort to solidify the safety net for needy veterans, with some success. To help that cause, Connor helped set up a Feb. 8 event at Smith College, dubbed “the Massachusetts Spiritual Strength Network.” He said the state chaplain will address the non-financial needs of returning vets, and most religious leaders here have said they will attend.
In her comments, Higgins also addressed 170-bed Soldier On homeless veterans shelter located on the campus of the VA hospital in Leeds.
“We’ve been strong supporters of the veterans shelter up there, I think it’s a really good thing, and they’re doing really good work with the vets,” Higgins said. “It’s a question about how do you share that responsibility for veterans more than anything else.”
In answer to a question, Connor explained that Soldier On is a non-profit group renting space from the VA hospital. He said there is some friction between the two organizations, but not as much as in other similar situations.
“When you have a non-profit on the grounds of a federal institution,” he said, “there’s always going to be a little bit of difficulty – this one’s paying for that – but everybody wants the best.”
© 2010 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org