National Agendas Have Local Ties
And many of these issues have local ties.
I will focus on the highlights from three testimonies that have direct ties to Melrose, Wakefield and Saugus veterans to include their families and supporters.
Military and Veteran Suicide
The largest VSO for the newest generation of veteran will make addressing military and veteran suicide their number one priority this year. The numbers are heartbreaking. A potential 284 soldiers, sailors and marines took their lives in 2013. This is an epidemic. Additionally, according to the VA, an estimated 22 veterans a day die from suicide and the 2014 IAVA member survey indicates that 47% of OIF/OEF veterans know a peer who attempted suicide. These are unacceptable figures.
Complications stemming from military service to include combat exposure, mental health issues, severe disability, troubled family lives, addiction and more than 12 years have war have led to the largest levels of military and veteran suicide since the government started keeping these statistics. While benefits exist, access to veteran healthcare, education and financial benefits are too slow, resulting in an environment that continues stigmas and prevents veterans from getting the help they deserve.
Our district is not exempt. We intervene annually in cases involving suicide and have laid far too many peers to rest far too early. I am one of the 47% who personally know an OIF/OEF suicide attempt (several) and each one is too many. We need to identify issues before it's too late. If you know a service member or veteran who is struggling, please reach out to us. Resources exist, we just need a chance to intervene. Locally, we can do several things to fight back against this epidemic.
1.) Reduce stigmas about mental health and addiction that keep veterans from seeking help
2.) Lobby our local representatives to improve access to VA mental health services
3.) Demand and end to the VA backlog that connects veterans to disability benefits and healthcare
4.) Share the VA crisis hotline 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1 For Veterans)
Mental Health and Disability
The WWP completed a survey in 2013 that indicated their membership suffers greatly from mental health issues to include a 75.4% PTSD rate, a 73.9% anxiety rate and a 68.8% depression rate. While these conditions are disruptive enough, their effect on OIF/OEF unemployment, family stability and legal issues exacerbate a problem that highlights our need to do more to help our recently returned veterans.
Congressional leadership mandated a 14-day maximum wait for veteran seeking mental health services for the VA. While VA has met this mandate, it is for the initial visit only. Many veterans must then wait 6 weeks or longer to access mental health services according to the WWP. This is a symptom of a larger problem - overloaded VA systems. More than 350,000 VA disability claims are older than 125 days with many veterans waiting more than 250 days to receive a decision on life-changing benefits. Financial benefits are the most commonly known outcome for VA disability claims, but service connection also ensures free VA healthcare, a vital link for our veterans suffering from mental health conditions.
Locally, we have hundreds of veterans suffering from mental health issues resulting from their military service. They vary in severity, but many waited dozens of years to finally seek help, only to see their claim wallow in bureaucracy. This is not an exaggeration. Many of the VA claims I filed with veterans when I first started this job more than 2 years ago are just now receiving a decision. And veterans who come into our offices today to finally seek help can expect to hear a decision on their claim in 2015. This is a huge problem.
If you would like to see how local non-profits run by veteran organizers like our own District VSO Andrew Biggio combat these long wait times by helping our Wounded Warriors, visit www.theyfoughtweride.com. It's amazing that we have these amazing veterans helping veterans, but it shouldn't be necessary. Our Wounded Warriors became disabled in service to their nation - the nation owes them a better quality if life.
A large percentage of our benefit clients are widows. According to the GSW, an estimated 300,000 surviving spouses exist from military service prior to the year 2000. While losing a loved one to war or service connected disability is tragic enough, the problem becomes worse when finances leave widows in poverty. If you sacrifice a loved one in service to the nation, we have a sacred mandate to ensure a basic quality of life at minimum.
A federal benefit exists to assist these spouses whose loved one was lost in service to the nation. Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) provides monetary benefits to these spouses totaling a maximum of $1233 a month in current amounts. The problem is, this is less than other federal benefits for surviving spouses and far less than the Massachusetts standard for quality of life - 200% of the Federal Poverty Level of $1945.
The GSW testified yesterday that while many federal pensions and survivor benefits offer more than 50% of full salary, the DIC benefit is just 41% of the 100-percent service connected disability benefit granted to veterans who meet this criteria. It is good we have this benefit, but when a spouse who is 100-percent connected passes (often meaning their lifetime earnings are decreased due to disability), the spouse is only eligible for less than half. The GSW is fighting to increase the benefit to 55%. That is the least we can do.
Melrose, Wakefield and Saugus have a large population of veteran widows with Melrose assisting more than 20 widows who live in near-poverty conditions. Massachusetts Chapter 115 benefits supplement existing benefits like Social Security in order to bring these widows closer to the 200% federal poverty level. Often, this assistance comes in the form or reimbursement for important out-of-pocket medical expenses, allowing our widows the chance to live without fear of losing their home or not having enough money to pay for heat and food. Our communities honor this commitment gladly, but federal benefits must do more to lessen the burden. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation to provide systematic local assistance, leaving widows across the nation at the mercy of a system that provides less than 50% of what they are due.
What Can You Do
Get involved. Write your elected officials, answer surveys and support federal, state and local benefits that provide life-changing services to those who fought or lost a loved one in service to the nation.
Identify issues and encourage veterans to seek assistance. We are here and we want to help.
Join Veteran Service Organizations. Our Congressional leaders hear from these important organizations all the time. Add your voice to their membership and join the fight for better benefits.
Understand the local ties. These are national agendas, but they impact our district.