Illinois grappling with younger veterans' needs

By David Mercer

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 26 2011 11:50 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2011 file photo, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn visits with Kristi Goodin and Zachary Zimerman, both U.S. Army National Guard specialists who met in Iraq and their 4-month-old son, Wyatt Zimerman in Chicago. As younger military veterans stream back into Illinois from Iraq and Afghanistan, Illinois faces a challenge as it tries to make them more of a priority in a time of desperately tight budgets. The state has been increasing the amount it spends on veterans services in recent years. But the bulk of that money is spent on older veterans while many younger soldiers and National Guard troops are returning to a difficult economy looking for help with jobs and training.

M. Spencer Green, File, Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As younger military veterans stream back into Illinois from Iraq and Afghanistan, the state faces a challenge as it tries to make them more of a priority in a time of desperately tight budgets.

The state has been increasing the amount it spends on veterans services in recent years. But the bulk of that money is spent on older veterans while many younger soldiers and National Guard troops are returning to a difficult economy looking for help with jobs and training.

"You'd wipe out a lot of those issues veterans are running into — homelessness, unemployment — if you focus on education," said Andy Lucido, a former U.S. Army officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan who took advantage of an Illinois Veterans Grant after returning and argues that such programs should be expanded for others.

The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't know for sure how many veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars live in the state, spokesman Louie Pukelis said. But 2010 U.S. Census figures put the number of Illinoisans who were in the armed forces after 1990 at about 191,000. That's almost double the number of Illinois vets found in the 2000 census who served after 1990.

With a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, the state has increased funding of the department 46 percent to $97.74 million a year since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to state documents obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act. But state officials say most of the additional money has been mandated either by increases in staff pay negotiated in union contracts or a new state law last year that required more nurses for nursing home patients.

The vast majority of the money Illinois spends on its veterans — $82.86 million, or 85 percent — goes into the state's four veterans' homes, which serve between 900 and 1,000 former military personnel.

"I think it's where it ought to be," Erica Borggren, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said about the financial emphasis on older veterans. "Those veterans served in World War II or Korea. That's been a core, defining mission for our agency for a long time now."

But agency officials envision the number of younger veterans steadily increasing and believe the state may be in a better position to handle some of their needs than the federal government, Borggren said. So, acknowledging the lack of money, they are looking for solutions that aren't just financial.

"We all know these are tight times and we have to be really mindful of how we spend our money," Borggren said. "There will be growing needs."

Illinois generally gets good marks for its handling of veterans' issues. Derek Blumke, a veteran of the Afghanistan war who helped found the national advocacy group Student Veterans Of America while a student at the University of Michigan, said many states pay lip service to veterans issues, talking a good game while uncertain how to help younger vets, much less how to pay for that help.

Illinois isn't among them, said Blumke, who as a student was part of an advisory committee Gov. Pat Quinn put together to provide feedback on veterans' services.

"With Illinois and a couple of others states, I think they've created more of a culture," said Blumke, who went to work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after graduating last year. "There's been a significant investment in Illinois. But beyond that, the governor's office and his directors have made it a culture in the state: 'This is what we're doing.'"

As lieutenant governor, Quinn made a point of attending the funerals of Illinoisans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. As governor he has continued to work with lawmakers to roll out programs intended to benefit veterans. This month the governor announced a new home loan program for veterans and eased State Police hiring restrictions for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He spent a portion of the Christmas holiday this year visiting wounded U.S. troops in Germany.

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