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Montana's vets face increasingly tough times

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Throughout the month of May, Allen Erickson saw 34 new families walk into the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry. They were veteran families, some with wives, some with kids, some with both. Many were new to the Kalispell area, Erickson says. Others had recently fallen on hard times and needed support. Ten families were homeless.

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  • Photo courtesy Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, U.S. Army

Erickson wasn't all that surprised. The food pantry, which he and his wife started 12 years ago, usually sees an increase in patronage this time of year. But since Erickson's May tally, four more veteran families have turned to him for help. All of them are homeless.

"We have a lot of new kids," Erickson says. "Thank the Good Lord quite a few of them aren't homeless. But they're so close to it, it's not funny. ... It shouldn't be that way."

Erickson's concerns for veterans, particularly those returning to Montana from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, are well founded. In 2008, a state survey of homelessness found that 282 military veterans in Montana were living with friends, at shelters, in treatment facilities, on the streets—in a word, were homeless. Of those, 11 had families with them.

This year, the same survey found 383 homeless veterans statewide; 20 had family members with them. For those trying to transition into civilian life, the combination of a poor job market and lasting injuries from the wars is having a noticeable impact.

"We're seeing an increasing number in the more recent conflicts," says Paul Harmon, a re-entry and justice outreach specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's still a lower percentage than homeless veterans from previous conflicts, he adds, "but the numbers are increasing. We're also seeing more families ... and more women veterans that are homeless."

The VA's been working to meet the needs of those who've served, both in the state and across the nation. Harmon says that in Montana alone, over the past three years, the agency has quadrupled the number of staff assigned to manage homeless issues. They've increased contracts with community partners, started giving housing vouchers to veterans and their families in 2008 and redoubled efforts to train returning vets for new jobs. There's even a proposal to construct housing units for veterans at Fort Harrison, near Helena.

But the problems run deeper than housing. Nationwide, the number of veterans seeking mental health care has jumped from fewer than 900,000 in 2006 to 1.2 million in 2010. On average, 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer some sort of mental health condition; according to a 2011 report to the Government Accountability Office, roughly one in three such cases involves Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Mental health issues like PTSD have made it difficult for returning vets to transition back into old jobs or hold down new ones, Harmon says. Those difficulties can be compounded by the small size of many Montana communities.

"We've worked with several veterans who have had multiple deployments, and then they come back and the job that they had before they left, there's problems there," Harmon says. "Then, because of their mental health stuff, they can't seem to hold a job. It's not a big area like Salt Lake or Denver, where's there's lots of different jobs and you could bounce from job to job. Here, in some of these places, if you bounce four or five jobs you're not going to be able to find work anymore."

VA Montana says it's added five new mental health clinicians to address such concerns. According to public affairs officer Terrie Casey, the agency hired one new physician in early June and intends to have two more in place by the end of July. There are currently 81 mental health clinicians employed by the VA in Montana.

Casey says VA Montana also has become much more proactive in diagnosing vets with mental health conditions early on. Last November, the agency rewrote its strategy on assessing returning veterans. Now, when a unit comes home to the state, the VA schedules physician appointments for each member to determine physical and mental health. Usually that scheduling is left up to the veteran, Casey says, and it's easy for those appointments to slip through the cracks. She adds that Montana is one of the only VA programs in the country—if not the only one—to offer such a service.

Up in Kalispell, Erickson knows what even the smallest gesture can do. About six years ago, he recalls, a man who'd served in Vietnam asked his wife Linda for help getting a photo ID during a veterans gathering in Libby. Both Erickson and his wife are veterans. Both have been homeless, he says, with children. Linda didn't hesitate to help the man.

"His mom happened to run into my wife, and she was crying, so my wife took her aside," Erickson says. "She said this was the first time her son had been out of the woods since he came home from Vietnam in the early '70s."

Two years later, Linda saw the man again. He was spruced up, clean shaven. He walked up to her and told her he had a job, was living in an apartment. All because of her help.

With an influx of newer, younger veterans, Erickson only expects his volunteer work in Kalispell to get busier. "You just get attached to these guys and gals," he says. "It's not just helping anymore. It's become personal."

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