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Why Michigan veterans aren't taking advantage of benefits

Senator Levin speaks with military member
Carl Levin
On Saturday, Levin gave a senate floor statement on don’t ask, don’t tell

  The following is a summary of a previously recorded interview. To hear the complete segment, click the audio above.

There are 670,000 veterans in Michigan — the 11th highest population of veterans in the US.

However, Michigan comes in last place (after Guam) when it comes to the amount of federal money spent per veteran. The benefits and assistance exist, but why aren't they being used?

Jason Allen is the senior deputy director for veteran affairs for Michigan's Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. He pointed to three reasons that can be attributed to Michigan's low ranking.

  1. The lack of integration of veteran assistance into many areas of society,
  2. the lack of awareness of support for veterans,
  3. and the pride of many veterans all contribute to the issue.

With the support of Governor Snyder, Michigan is working to raise awareness for veteran benefits and support throughout the state.
According to Allen, the first step to integrate the benefits that are available to veterans is to simply ask one question:

"Are you a veteran?"

"We have great partners out there but it has taken time to ask the question, 'Have you served?'"

The assistance is readily available, but isn't fully integrated into public conversations throughout the state.

"Last year I did almost 30 veteran town hall meetings," Allen said. "Veterans are not aware of those benefits. You sit down and talk to those men and women that served and many of them say, 'No, I wasn't in combat so I haven't earned this."

Allen said that many veterans don't feel they deserve veteran assistance, especially if they didn't spend time in a combat zone. But, he assured them, every veteran qualifies.

There are three big areas of benefits and support Michigan offers to veterans that aren't taken advantage of. The Michigan GI bill offers veterans eight semesters of college which is transferable to the children or spouse  of the veteran.

Additionally, Allen noted that veterans qualify for five years of free healthcare. Tax credits are also available for hiring veterans.

In comparison to the Civil War and World War II, Michigan is seeing a higher percentage of men and women coming home because of the time spent in combat, Allen said.

"For every death in the Civil War, there was one survivor. Now, for every death there are 27 or 28 survivors," he said.

Another program that needs to be utilized provides support to Vietnam era veterans, especially for health related assistance. 

The exposure to dioxins — a dangerous chemical found in Agent Orange, often resulted in cancer, diabetes and systematic heart failure which are now considered "presumptive pre-qualifiers" that automatically enable Vietnam veterans to obtain aid.

After the second World War, Michigan set up a trust fund for its veterans.

"It's approximately 50 million dollars and in each county there's a trust fund office," Allen said. "If you're having a problem making heating payments or making ends meet, this trust fund has money available." 

Allen also pointed out that the trust fund is  available to any wartime veteran. 

"If you're at Fort Hood and still at a base, you're considered a wartime veteran. If you served in World War II and didn't get deployed overseas, you're a wartime veteran." 

On March 20, the new Michigan Veteran Affairs agency will begin operation, on the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq. Allen hopes the agency will better integrate and implement veteran assistance within the state.

"Washington said something to the effect of 'We are judged by how we take care of our veterans,' and Lincoln said something to that effect also. I learn something every time I sit down and talk with these men," Allen said.

The effort to take better advantage of veteran assistance will require teamwork from many organizations, but also will demand a restructuring of how Michiganians view veterans and benefits that should be made available to them. 

"We have a very long way ahead of us, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Allen said. "We are very optimistic."

- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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