LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Throughout his nearly 10-year military career, Jeff Barnes said he led almost 700 soldiers into combat and brought all home alive. But after leaving the military, a prospective employer looked at his resume and asked, "This looks great, but have you had any leadership experience?"
Barnes, who served as an armored cavalry officer for the U.S. Army and completed tours in Korea, the Balkans and Iraq, said he will use personal experiences like that to improve the state's veteran services as director of the new Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.
"I'm very familiar with the things that lead up to a deployment, the types of things that families go through while their soldiers are deployed, what it's like to really navigate this disparate system when you come back," Barnes told The Associated Press.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder established the agency in January on the heels of heavy criticism that the state was not doing enough for its nearly 700,000 veterans. Despite the 11th-highest veteran population, the state ranks dead last in the number of those who utilize U.S. Veterans Administration benefits, which officials blame in part on the way veterans services are scattered among 15 different state departments.
"What you end up with is a very confusing patchwork of services that veterans come back into" which "becomes very difficult to navigate, very frustrating," Barnes said. "A lot of times that's where we lose veterans because they get turned off to that and do what veterans do best, which is adapt and overcome."
Barnes has been tasked with streamlining and coordinating veterans' services, and finding ways to reach out to veterans. Last month, Snyder approved $3 million in funding for the agency.
The agency plans to start with pilot projects in Wayne and Kent counties, where it will survey services to find out where gaps exist. From there, he said the goal is to create a "no wrong door" model, in which veterans get connected to services and providers share information.
But he said one of the biggest challenges is making veterans aware of services.
"We don't do a very good job of connecting ... and it becomes very labor intensive when we do need to connect," he said. In the last 10 years, there have been about 50 changes in the benefits for which Vietnam veterans are eligible, he said. If veterans have been disconnected, they may not even know what they are eligible for.
"There isn't enough information for veterans that are coming home to know what their benefits are," said 65-year-old Vietnam veteran Tom Burton of Burton, Mich. "They just tend to leave you in the dark," he said. Burton connected with the American Legion, but many veterans are left on his or her own, he said.
Barnes said he envisions creating a place on the state's website where veterans can enter their zip code and see the services in their area. He said he eventually wants to build a web portal where veterans can track benefits claims.
He said the agency will ramp up outreach efforts with billboards, fliers and radio ads. "But that's going to take a lot of boots on the ground effort," he said.
The state recently received VA accreditation to act on behalf of veterans and oversee processing of cases. That also means the state now has access to veterans' last-known addresses to allow for more targeted outreach, Barnes said.
Previously, the state relied on county veterans' counselors and service groups like the American Legion to oversee claims processing. Now the state will have five mobile officers who will work with these groups to reach more veterans.
"We still need to work together to make sure that we are able to connect with every veteran in the state," said James Topps, director of the American Legion Veteran Affairs and Rehabilitation and a Vietnam veteran.
Another challenge Barnes faces is helping veterans find jobs. He said many veterans come home wanting to continue to serve and lead.
"I think as a state we need to capitalize on that," he said.
But understanding and expressing how military skills translate to the private sector can be a challenge for veterans, he said. He said will work with the state to make it easier for veterans to get licensed for jobs like EMTs and commercial truck drivers using skills from their service.
Barnes said it is crucial that the state takes immediate steps to improve services for veterans.
"When we shut the lights off in Afghanistan... there will be another issue that will take the forefront, so you've got to capitalize on that right now."