Kentucky is home to more than 270,000 military veterans. From the last of the World War II vets, to those who have recently left the armed services, these men and women have a range of needs that federal and state agencies as well as non-profit organizations are devoted to addressing.
A new KET Forum highlighted several service providers helping veterans with mental health problems, homelessness, employment challenges, and health care.
According to a landmark study conducted by the U.S. Army and the National Institute of Mental Health, active-duty service personnel have a rate of depression that’s five times greater than the general population. The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are 15 times greater. Of those currently serving, one in four military members show signs of a mental disorder.
Those conditions aren’t just the result of long deployments or combat experiences. Whitney Allen, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, says stress and trauma can also occur among service members who perform rescue and recovery services following natural disasters, such as the Kentucky National Guard personnel called in after the 2021 tornados in western Kentucky and the 2022 flooding in eastern Kentucky.
Because service members are trained to persevere through extreme adversity and look out for their brothers and sisters in arms, retired Lt. Col. Robbin Higgins of Disabled American Veterans says military personnel are less likely to focus on their own health while on active duty or after they leave the service.
“You would never ask for assistance,” says Higgins, who served 28 years in the military. “At the time that I joined, you would never let anybody see that you had any type of weakness, you would never ask for any type of help... because of the stigma that would be associated with that.”
That is slowly changing, according to Brig. Gen. Brian F. Wertzler, assistant adjutant general with the Kentucky Army National Guard. He says the Army now actively trains soldiers to understand that it’s ok to ask for help.
“Our approach is we don’t wait until there’s an issue. We get after it and teach and train resiliency to soldiers,” says Wertzler. “We have services and capabilities, much more robust than what it used to be in the past, across our formations to enable our soldiers to reach out, get the help they need, and continue to be productive soldiers.”
Even in retirement, former service members may still be reluctant to seek mental health care. Katie Marks, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental, and Intellectual Disabilities, says veterans may not know what help exists, lack the transportation to get to appointments, or feel worthy of care.
“As a result, we see that nearly 50 percent of people are not accessing the mental health and substance use disorder services that they need, and that’s a tragedy because hope and help exists,” says Marks.
Anyone in a mental health crisis can dial 988 for immediate assistance anytime of the day or night. Marks says that hotline offers an option specifically for veterans in crisis. She says this year alone, more than 9,200 Kentucky vets have called the hotline.
In addition to the crisis support, the state has 14 military behavioral health coordinators located across the commonwealth who work with active-duty personnel, veterans, and their family members. Marks says the coordinators are tasked with ensuring that individuals find and get the help they need. She says the state is also piloting a peer support program where those seeking care can connect with active or retired service members who understand the unique mental health concerns of military personnel.
Higgins says being able to talk with people who know military life is critical for those leaving the military.
“I found myself transitioning from being on active duty and then the very next day I was out of the service, and there went my whole entire community,” she says. “There went people who just automatically knew what you were going through.”
A number of non-profit organizations have emerged in recent years to support veterans struggling with isolation, anger, depression, and PTSD. Some of these groups, like Warrior Ridge in Vanceburg, are run by former service members.
“As a veteran, you feel so honored to be able to serve your country,” says Landon Bentley, who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “But at the same time, when you come home it’s just such an adjustment… There is no transition process, there’s nothing.”
After he left the service, Bentley says he lived in an old cabin on his grandparents’ farm as he struggled to adjust to civilian life. Occasionally he would invite some of his military buddies to stay with him there. That inspired the idea for Warrior Ridge, which offers free retreats for struggling veterans who would benefit from reconnecting with their military community.
“You build a brotherhood, you build a unity between one another,” says Joshua Waller, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. “So when you find out you get to be with these guys for a few days... you can’t wait to come up here.”
Over a long weekend of hiking, kayaking, grilling out, and talking around a campfire, the veterans are able to affirm the bonds that united them military service and lay the groundwork for maintaining those relationships in civilian life.
“Our only job here is to reconnect these guys and figure out a way where they stay in contact because they have each other’s backs,” says Bentley. “Get them back together, keep them in constant contact – that way they’ll have the support system they need for the rest of their lives.”
More than 400 veterans in the commonwealth were homeless last year, according to the Kentucky Housing Corporation. Nearly half of them served during the Vietnam War era, and 89 percent of them left the service with honorable discharges.
But the number of vets at risk of being without shelter is likely much larger, says Anyah Hoang-Ansert, who is vice president of veteran and housing services at Volunteers of America Mid-States in Louisville. She says many former service members may be one lost paycheck or one unexpected bill away from losing their housing. VOA offers a range of support services to veterans and their families in need of shelter.
“It is our responsibility in the commonwealth to let our veterans know that we are their support,” says Hoang-Ansert. “They can come to us, and we will find them permanent housing.”
The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs offers mini grants to vets at immediate risk of homeless by providing funds for overdue bills or unforeseen expenses. Eileen Ward, director of the Homeless Veteran Program, says the application process includes a simple form, photo identification, and a copy of the bill that needs paying. She says many requests are filled the same day.
Veterans Rural Outreach (VRO) provides food assistance, counseling, housing, and other services to vets in Shelbyville and surrounding counties. The organization also has a collection of six tiny homes that opened in 2020 to provide temporary housing for homeless vets.
“Our whole mission... is trying to keep all the veterans in their homes, not to become homeless,” says Carlen Pippin, president of VRO.
The 360-square foot homes that comprise Veterans Village serve as transitional housing for former service members. In addition to shelter, VRO offers the veterans an array of programs to help them get back on their feet.
“I was in a real bad place for a good while,” says Donald Hoy, a Marine veteran who moved into the village after living in his truck. “They got us set up with a financial planner, helping us with money management, helping us with life skills, and really setting us up into a place where we leave here in a better place than we came here. “
Among the challenges that some veterans face as they transition back to civilian life is finding work. KDVA Commissioner Allen says younger veterans who leave the service after four years may have valuable experience but no college degree. He says employers often don’t know how to evaluate a veteran’s skills against what their workplace needs.
“They just don’t know or can equate military experience to work experience,” says Allen. “A lot of them don’t know about soft skills that veterans bring.”
On the other end of the spectrum, says Allen, are veterans who have decades of military service including extensive leadership and management experience, but don’t know how write a résumé or interview for a job.
To help businesses that want to hire veterans, the Kentucky Chamber Foundation will host a Military Hiring Academy in 2024. Zach Morgan, a talent pipeline project manager at the Chamber, says they hope to conduct three training sessions throughout the year for interested businesses. The academies will focus on best practices for recruiting, hiring, and retaining veterans and military spouses.
Last year Congress passed the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act to provide health care and other benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in the Middle East conflicts, Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, and polluted water at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Rather than forcing veterans to prove that their poor health was caused by toxic exposures, the legislation automatically covers 23 different ailments presumed to be the result of military service.
Since passage of the PACT Act, law firms have rushed to solicit clients exposed to these toxins. Using an attorney could help a vet receive their payment faster than filing their own claim, but Lt. Col. Higgins says some attorneys have kept upwards of 40 percent of the payout to cover their fees. She says the U.S. Department of Justice has since capped legal fees in such cases to 25 percent.
Higgins and Allen stress that vets do not have to have an attorney to file a PACT Act claim. Allen says KDVA has 23 field representatives around the state that can assist vets with the paperwork for free.
“Come see KDVA first,” says Allen. “It is very hard to put in claims and do the work, but by law the commonwealth has people that can support you.”
Veterans are entitled to free health care for life through VA hospitals around the country. In Louisville, construction is underway on a new hospital that will replace the 70-year-old Robley Rex VA Medical Center.
“It’s difficult to try to fit the new technology into an older hospital,” says Medical Center Executive Director Jo-Ann Ginsberg of VA Louisville Health Care. “When this hospital was built, you didn’t have CT scans or MRIs. You didn’t have computers. All of that is very integral to high quality care and safe care.”
The new, $840 million facility in eastern Jefferson County will serve 150,000 veterans in Kentucky and southern Indiana with state-of-the-art medical and rehabilitation equipment. Ginsberg says a key feature of the new center will be a space dedicated to health care for female vets.
“Everything in the VA for years and years we retrofitted to meet the needs of women veterans,” she says. “This is being built with the woman veteran in mind.”
Whether it’s medical care, PACT Act compensation, or help with housing and employment, Allen strongly encourages all veterans to make use of the benefits they have earned.
“You wrote a blank check to our country to serve our nation, and we promised as a nation to take care of you and your family... so you deserve it,” he says. “Do it for you. If you don’t want to do it for you, do it for your family.”