Although an estimated 40,000 nonprofit groups nationwide are servicing 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans on top of all the benefits and programs offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are few central directories warehousing these available resources. Oftentimes, veterans are confounded by the array of resources available to them, say advocates.
“It’s definitely a huge issue,” said Jason Hansman, the membership director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. With all those resources, “it can be overwhelming.”
On a local level, Augusta Warrior Project is making a dent in the demand for veteran services, but locating veterans and educating them about their options is an ongoing issue, said Jim Lorraine, the executive director.
“We’re doing great stuff,” Lorraine said. “But we’re struggling to get the greater Augusta area to understand about the project and just call us.”
Unemployment is one of the largest issues facing veterans, although there are signs of improvement. Veteran unemployment hit a record high in 2011 at 30 percent for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24. The picture is changing in 2012, when unemployment of post-9/11 veterans of all ages dropped significantly in February to 7.6 percent, a few points lower than the national unemployment rate. Economists are still unsure whether this was a fluke or the beginning of a trend.
Jose Negron, of Aiken, was just hired two weeks ago at Alstar Inc., a vinyl siding company headquartered in Beech Island, after 23 months without work. Negron retired from the Army in 1993 with the rank of sergeant and eventually walked into a successful career managing a plant nursery. When the went company bankrupt, however, the managers were the first to go.
Negron turned to the Internet for help and the Georgia Department of Labor’s unemployment office, but he wasn’t sure where to turn for veteran-specific resources. Two months ago he found Augusta Warrior Project and they pointed him in the right direction. Even now that he has a job, the follow-up care from the project impresses him.
“I thought ‘Wow, these people care about military,’ ” Negron said.
For Lorraine, employment is a big part of reintegrating veterans back into society, but just one piece of the puzzle. Through a network of community resources, staff members also help cut red tape for medical and housing benefits, find counseling for mental issues and assist with enrollment in educational programs through the GI Bill.
Finding the veterans in need is done in part through “boots on the ground” visits to soup kitchens, but also through referrals from other veterans, local nonprofits and the Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals in Augusta.
“We have good in-roads to get to the right person,” Lorraine said.