Iraq War veteran Armando Elias, a 41 year-old native Puerto Rican, joined the U.S. Army at age 26 and became a sergeant before his service ended. He and his family described the anxiety that they sometimes faced; he as a returning veteran becoming acclimated to civilian life while seeking work, and the family struggling with occasional anxiety as they waited for him to return safely.
Elias later joined the New Britain Police Department, but admits he was lucky to have related professional experience. He said others that have served are not always so lucky, adding that the government needs to provide more opportunities for veterans seeking work.
“It’s tough for them,” he said. “I was fortunate because of my background. I had a friend who went back to Puerto Rico. He could not find work and eventually he re-enlisted.”
Elias said that while there were programs, more help is still needed with educational funding for members of the armed services.
He added that transitioning between a mindset needed for active duty in combat and one for civilian life was difficult during the first few months. “There are vets out there suffering for lack of a job and some are homeless.” he noted in reference to his first-hand experiences as a police officer.
Major Lesbia Nieves, who has served in the Connecticut National Guard for 26 years, said many veterans are too embarrassed to seek help because they see it as a sign of weakness. Problems such as Traumatic Brain Injury can also make the bureaucracy even more frustrating to navigate, she added.
Richard Reyes, a Hartford area resident whose son serves in the Marines, said Latinos in particular are sometimes too proud to get the counseling and support services provided by the military.
“There is advocacy and education, but there is a sense of ‘this is not for us’ that you find,” said Nieves, who said she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and has lost comrades to combat and suicide.
Colonel John Wiltse, a spokesperson for the Connecticut National Guard, says the military does not track those who seek assistance by ethnic groups, but the message they continuously try to get out to all veterans is to be proactive in seeking assistance, a message he says crosses all cultures and backgrounds.
Wiltse adds, there are numerous support options available for veterans and their families, including the Connecticut Family Program, which serves the families of guardsmen and reservists from other branches of the military. The federally funded program maintains a staff of 35 people. Services range from financial counseling and employment assistance to addressing youth behavioral issues. The staff includes a consultant that works directly with spouses and children to help ease the pressures of military life, said Wiltse.
Wiltse said there were programs such as VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work), which is federally funded, mandated by congress and focused on guardsmen and reservists. He said the program provided multiple tiers of preparation for veterans returning from combat zones to ensure that they could pursue either full-time employment or school.
There is also the federally funded Transition Assistance Advisor program available in each state, which serves all service members moving from active duty to civilian life. “The primary role of each state’s advisor is to be that central source of information and referrals about where to receive additional help,” he said. “Brigadier General (Ret) Dan McHale is Connecticut’s advisor and although he works as part of the Connecticut National Guard staff, he is available to assist any transitioning service member in the state (active, Reserves or National Guard).”
Wiltse said the state’s Mental Health and Addiction Department’s Military Support Program, which is state funded and operates outside of the military system, can also provide support for veterans regarding different issues. He said the program can send counselors to work or home to help.
Nieves, who will be soon be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and has served as president of HAVOCT (Hispanic American Veterans of Connecticut) said, “There is a void regarding outreach, education and advocacy for Latino veterans and their families in particular.”
She adds that there is a subtle culture of discrimination in some professions against military reservists because they can be called into active service, adding this is generally not provable, although it can interrupt careers. “In many private and government businesses veterans are preferred, but in some areas reservists and people facing deployment can be viewed as a potential liability,” she said, adding that her administrative and bureaucratic experiences in college and work have helped her.
Wiltse said there were federal laws such as the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act addressing that issue, but admitted employers can sometimes get around them. He referred to the ESGR (Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve) committees in different states that mediate such conflicts, adding that there were still many companies that recognized the value of veterans.
Nieves said its not always a program that makes the difference for veterans and their families, sometimes something as simple as a periodic phone call to veterans asking them how things were going could be meaningful and demonstrate that the country values their service.
As for seeking help, “It’s a matter of taking that first step; opening the door,” Reyes said. “I always saw the Marines as being hard core, but they do provide services.”
Wiltse recommends that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families in Connecticut that need assistance or have questions about programs or benefits contact any of the following:
CT Military Transition Assistance Advisor – (860) 524-4908
USVA Health Care OEF/OIF Program Manager – (203) 932-5711 X7975
CT Dept. of Veterans Affairs – 866-928-8387
CT Military Support Program – 866-251-2913
CT Service Member and Family Support Center – 800-858-2677
By Brian Woodman Jr. CTLatinoNews.com