Last Friday, Nov. 11, we celebrated Veterans Day. The theme for this year’s celebration was honor. The commitment to our country that our veterans have shown by remaining steadfast in the face of peril is one of the truest forms of honor.
Wisconsin is home to over 300,000 veterans, comprising 7.4 percent of the adult population. From Revolutionary soldiers at the very birth of our nation to modern-day soldiers protecting us abroad, our state and our nation owe the utmost respect and gratitude for those who have served and the families that supported them.
Veterans make many sacrifices to preserve our freedom as Americans. Our veterans deserve recognition for their commitment to putting our country ahead of themselves. More importantly, our veterans deserve assurance that the country they served will be there to offer support if and when they need it.
We ask a lot of our service members. It is critical that we address the immediate needs of veterans and their families. These include support for physical and mental health services, education programs, career and job placement assistance, as well as addressing housing insecurity and substance abuse initiatives.
Veterans often face unique challenges affecting their mental, emotional and physical health after completing their service. Many returning veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse, and are more likely to die by suicide. According to the census, over 20 percent of Wisconsin’s veterans have a service-connected disability.
The COVID-19 pandemic created staffing shortages throughout our health care system, and long-term care facilities for veterans were particularly impacted by this shortage. Rural areas, which often have more limited mental health services, were also disproportionately impacted.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, 67 percent of Wisconsin’s veterans live in rural areas, with long distances to travel to access Veterans Affairs (VA) resources. Since 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs has administered the Office of Rural Health, established to address the unique issues faced by veterans in rural areas when it comes to accessing healthcare.
Telehealth expansion took off dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Continuing to support telehealth programs will undoubtedly increase health care access for underserved communities.
Broadband access remains an issue in many rural areas of Wisconsin, therefore limiting telehealth’s adoption. At a recent VA mental health summit, VA psychiatrist Michael McBride estimated that roughly 30 percent of veterans who live in rural areas lack access to the Internet. Telehealth appointments that can reach rural veterans hinge on broadband expansion to these areas.
This year, the Department of Health and Human Services debuted the 9-8-8 crisis line, designed to provide support for people experiencing mental health crises. You can dial “1” from the main menu to immediately access mental health resources for veterans.
For some veterans, mental health struggles have led to substance abuse, financial instability and in some cases homelessness. According to the Housing Assistance Council, at least 300 Wisconsin veterans are experiencing homelessness.
The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs administers the Veterans Housing and Recovery Program, which provides temporary housing and supportive services to veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
It is important to acknowledge your own family members who served. My father’s WWII Navy uniform hangs in my Senate office. He passed away recently, but his service uniform reminds me of the selfless service our veterans endure and how they proudly commit themselves to our country and way of life. I know that many families have similar stories. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is collecting stories of Wisconsin veterans. You can submit photos and stories of veterans in your family here: https://wisvetsmuseum.com/about-wisconsin-veterans-museum/veterans-profile-submission/
It’s our continuing responsibility to support our brave veterans who truly exemplify the meaning of public service. Let’s ensure that we maintain what we have while we find new ways to support veterans’ physical, mental and financial well-being.