My Turn: Assessing the needs of veterans during the pandemic and beyond

  • The flag is displayed between messages posted on the sign of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Leeds. Gazette file photo

Published: 4/22/2021 8:40:30 AM

As the pandemic has raged on over the past year, many of us have reflected on ourselves, our families and on the disparate impacts the virus has had on so many of our friends, neighbors and fellow residents. As leaders in the Massachusetts veterans’ community, our focus has been on our state’s veterans and understanding how they have fared during this crisis and what we can do address their needs going forward.

Last year, Brighton Marine commissioned a survey by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) to conduct a needs assessment of Massachusetts veterans. The report’s goal was to examine which veteran needs were being met, what efforts were being taken to address them, and what kinds of collaborations were in place.

The report looked at the landscape of veteran supports in Massachusetts, including public and nonprofit sector activities, as well as the unmet needs that were identified.

The estimated number of veterans living in Massachusetts is approximately 286,875, according to VA estimates. Here in Hampshire County, there are over 11,000 veterans, who make up 7% of the population. They deserve our gratitude and assistance in accessing benefits.

Soldier On is a western Mass organization that provides guidance and coordination for veterans and their families, helping them make informed decisions, and understand their options. Through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program, we connect vets to VA benefits and a variety of community-based resources they are entitled to.

Our goal is to help veteran families get back on their feet. That often involves help identifying housing and access to services so families can experience safety, stability, and economic self-sufficiency.

In Leeds, we work on transitional housing opportunities and permanent housing solutions for veterans. The Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Village site has 44 units of permanent housing units for veterans. Each veteran resident in both transitional and permanent housing has a case manager that works directly with them on a service plan based on their individual needs. Veterans have access to groups, telehealth, meals, legal services, and transportation provided by Soldier On.

The CNAS report identified the following priority areas that veterans need assistance with: access to dental care and mental health supports, financial stability, housing, social supports, and the infrastructure to support veterans across those domains. The report also found that the pandemic has exacerbated concerns around unemployment, homelessness, food insecurity, and mental health.

Veterans, and stakeholders across the state, recommended a variety of actions to better serve the veteran community in Massachusetts. These range from policy changes and adapting to generational shifts, to targeted solutions specific to an individual’s demographic background. Outreach challenges and awareness gaps spanned all categories and audiences. A major takeaway is the need to reformulate how services and benefits are communicated and advertised to the audiences and individuals the resources are meant to serve.

The CNAS report includes key recommendations for policymakers to consider including: implement veteran-specific mental health care benefits; phase in veteran service officers with language skills, most significantly Spanish, that are commensurate with the increase in foreign language speakers in Massachusetts; and to streamline the veteran benefit application processes.

And the report suggests several recommendations for veteran-serving organizations to work on as we continue to respond to the pandemic: revamp outreach efforts to be more proactive and targeted; tailor support for specific subpopulations; provide direct financial assistance during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic; implement a one-stop shop for support services; and help veterans access existing housing networks.

Brighton Marine and Soldier On are committed to working on these recommendations and we will continue to develop important partnerships and efforts to address these issues. Our veterans and their families deserve nothing less. As a Veteran Network Community, we invite any military and veteran-focused organizations to contact us to continue the conversation and take action.

Michael Dwyer is president & CEO of Brighton Marine. Bruce Buckley is CEO of Soldier On.

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