INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana has a large number of veterans who are returning home as the Army thins its ranks and winds down overseas engagements, placing more demand on a network of veterans’ services that is already stretched thin.
Unfortunately for Hoosiers coming home, local veterans’ advocates says Indiana lags far behind other states when it comes to getting services to those in need.
The problem may be particularly acute in Indiana. But Army Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost says it’s happening across the entire nation.
"It is a problem and there is a high demand," Frost said Friday. "That population is going to continue to depart the military for the next decade."
In addition to reducing its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is required to scale back as a result of cuts to the federal budget, drawing the number of soldiers down from 570,000 to perhaps as low as 420,000, Frost said.
That reduction will essentially give pink slips to many soldiers who have made a career out of repeat deployments.
And as the number of veterans grows, so too will the need for services that help them make the transition back to civilian life, in areas from job training to medical care and counseling.
"Unfortunately, we have to right-size the force," Frost said. "You have to make some very tough calls."
A 2014 report by the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs found the state was deficient in 21 ways – both large and small – that hamper the delivery of services.
On the federal level, overworked veterans hospitals have drawn scrutiny. In 2014, federal officials investigated a secret waiting list that was supposedly kept to hide lengthy delays in veterans getting medical care. Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki ultimately resigned, and Frost says the Army is making strides to take care of returning soldiers.
Indiana has 710 homeless veterans, Frost said. And he added that those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have an unemployment rate of 10 percent – 3 points higher than the national average for veterans of those conflicts.
State veterans advocate Retired Brig. Gen. James Bauerle, of Carmel, said state lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence like "holding a parade and waving the flag on the Fourth of July."
But when it comes to fixing the state’s services for veterans, he said interest is limited.
"The state of Indiana has not recognized veterans as an economic positive impact. And they have not taken action to help veterans," Bauerle said.
James Brown, Pence’s director of the state office of veterans’ affairs, disputed Bauerle’s criticism.
Since taking office, he said, Pence backed a measure to certify county veterans’ workers, which allows them to file claims on veterans’ behalf. Brown also said Pence nearly doubled the veterans’ office’s staff, pushing the total number of agency employees up to 18.
"I think the governor has done a great job, I think we’ve done a great job," Brown said "We’re proud and can show where we started and where we’ve come to."
Bauerle pointed to the report, written by an outside evaluator, which found the state VA office does little outreach, delivers inconsistent service, has a workflow "heavily based on the movement of paper" and faces "barriers to efficiently serving the veteran population statewide."
The report found that in 2013 the state spent $3.67 per veteran. Meanwhile, Texas spent $18.69, Missouri spent $15.97 and Alabama spent $29.40.
"Where is the governor’s priority on taking care of veterans?" Bauerle said. "They wipe their hands of it and say ‘Well, it’s for the federal government to do’ instead of being progressive and forward thinking."