Madison Veterans Face New Battles When They Come Home

When Emily Jones* returned home from serving in the Army, she turned in her DD214 discharge form and left the building with a new title: veteran. 

This was in the 1980s, and although she didn’t realize it at the time, this would be the beginning of a lifelong battle.

Jones entered back into society no longer needing the soldier mentality, but unable to leave her experiences at the door with her papers. At the time, she was given no guidance about  available help and found herself living in her old car shortly after discharge with just her memories and a bottle of alcohol.    

It wasn’t until eight years ago that Jones started seeking help through the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Madison after running into an older veteran who had recently found out about the available services. 

Jones’ story is not uncommon among veterans. In many cases, members of the armed forces are promised they will being taken care of upon finishing their service. Often, the reality of that care comes with complications, loopholes, and years-long wait lists for benefits.

For Jones, these complications led to a decades-long battle to begin the process of reintegrating into society. 

Roadblocks to benefits

The resources available to veterans seem all-encompassing, offering help in any area a veteran may need.

But just because services exist does not mean veterans will receive help.

Along with the VA, there are local and national nonprofits and programs centered around serving veterans. Dane County alone has over 100 different resources ranging from general help in areas like food and employment, to specific programs like mental health, dog training or horseback riding services.

Several state-funded and nonprofit services assist individuals with specific needs. These programs, like Dryhootch Madison and the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, offer help with employment, shelter, food, housing, and more in an effort to help veterans reintegrate successfully into society post-service.

But each government and outside service carries its own eligibility requirements. However, many veterans aren’t aware of this. If they don’t qualify for benefits for one service, they may think they don’t qualify for any.

A veteran’s type of military service, such as active duty, active training, Army Reserve, and National Guard, all carry different weights in eligibility for specific services. Depending on the service, one may qualify for certain programs and not others.

According to the VA, a veteran is, “a person who served in the active military service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.” To be eligible for benefits, the veteran must have also served 24 continuous months or the full period that they were called to active duty.

This means that someone in active training, reserves or guard do not qualify. Because many veterans are unaware of the differing eligibility requirements, they assume the government’s qualifications are universal, meaning that if they don’t qualify for one service, they may think they don’t qualify for any.

“Many vets think because they haven’t been in combat that they’re not a veteran. They won’t keep searching because they think it’s a dead end,” said Ken Grant, Administrator of the Division of Veterans Services through the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.

Additionally, veterans are often unaware that these programs exist.

“If they don’t know the services are there, they’re not going to ask for help,” said Derek Miller, a veteran and case manager for the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program in Madison.

This is why Miller makes sure to spend time going to places around the city, like food pantries and churches that provide free resources, where he knows homeless veterans are likely to spend time so that he can inform them about services that they may be able to utilize.

Several programs make outreach a priority in order  to connect with veterans like Jones, so they are not waiting for years to utilize the benefits they could be receiving now.

The waiting game 

Jones was still living out of her car and,  occasionally, cheap motels when she went to the VA for treatment eight years ago. She received a disability benefit because of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that helped her afford housing. According to her diagnosis at the time, she qualified for about half of the available benefit amount.

Her initial plan after receiving the benefit was to secure housing, where she could then get a stable job and be able to afford the other basic needs. What she found, however, was that her PTSD was much more severe than she thought.

“I couldn’t keep jobs because I have so many triggers that are unavoidable in the day-to-day world,” Jones said. “When you’re at work and in society and constantly being reminded of the past that you’re trying desperately to forget, it makes functioning almost impossible.”

Without a stable income, Jones was nearing rock bottom again in being able to afford the cost of living. Jones received letters from managers at different jobs explaining that her work disabilities were due to PTSD. After seeing the extent of disability documented in her forms, she decided to appeal her rating in hopes of receiving enough benefit to help her meet basic needs since she could no longer rely on a stable job. 

Jones put in her appeal four years ago. She’s still waiting.

 Like Jones, many veterans who believe they weren’t rated appropriately will sit on the waitlist for years, receiving no additional benefits in the meantime. 

“I don’t know if I can make it like this for another few years,” she said.

A common hurdle veterans run into when looking for help is struggling to receive their actual discharge papers. Most services require those papers to validate service, but getting them can prove difficult.

“Veterans can’t really receive help without discharge papers,” Miller said. “There is a struggle in getting that paper because our government isn’t super organized. Sometimes they won’t have the records or they’re misplaced, so then veterans either need to do a lot of digging or find a caseworker to locate it.” 

Breaking the soldier mindset

Even if veterans know services exist, they often have to break through another personal barrier.

“In the military you’re taught not to ask for help. You’re taught to carry through and push through it,” Miller said.

“What we find too is that veterans will always find a reason that they are less of a veteran than someone else,” said Melinda Dresen, manager of Dryhootch Madison. “So they feel that somebody else is more deserving of help than they are. They will always minimize what they did.” 

Additionally, they may face the barrier of being overwhelmed by too many options.

“Veterans aren’t used to having a lot of options,” said Dresen. “You spend your career being told what to do, when to do it, how to do it. To have these problems, it’s so overwhelming that most veterans will just do nothing.”

That’s why much of Dresen’s focus at Dryhootch is to help find niche services targeted to each individual’s need.

“There are niche veteran-based groups for everything, so a lot of what we do is narrow stuff down for them.” 

A starting point 

Most veterans cannot return from service and immediately reintegrate into society. Programs and resources are critical in aiding the process, but finding and receiving those resources can be a battle in itself.

A large factor in veterans receiving services is the compatibility between the VA and outside resources, according to Dresen. And being around other veterans is crucial for learning how to reintegrate into society, Dresen says. Veterans need to know that there are other resources available that meet their specific needs. If they’re aware of these programs, they at least have a starting point. 

Veterans with immediate needs like shelter, food and transportation can utilize the website application, which will connect veterans to all available resources based on their location.

For veterans in Madison, resources like Dryhootch, Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, and WI Department of Veterans Affairs--all of which aim to help veterans with a multitude of needs--can open the door for help and benefits that will help them reintegrate successfully back into the society they served.

*pseudonym used for privacy purposes