Illinois grappling with younger veterans' needs

By David Mercer

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Dec. 26 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

But with a relatively slim $14.88 million of the state Veterans Affairs budget in 2011 not spoken for by veterans' homes, the department at times depends on the generosity of other institutions to meet younger veterans' needs.

The Illinois Veterans Grant has helped many returning soldiers like Lucido. The 30-year-old is less than a year away from getting his MBA from the University of Illinois and has a job lined up with a consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

But the state hasn't provided enough money to cover the program's costs in years, and the grant remains a popular choice for Illinois vets even with improved federal G.I. Bill benefits available in recent years.

Illinois' public universities cover what the state doesn't pay. The state's nine public universities spent more than $13 million on the program in 2008, the most recent year for which a collective figure was immediately available from the state Student Assistance Commission.

"Were the schools ever to stop fulfilling the requirements of the law because of a lack of funding, that would be an issue," Borggren said.

Illinois also tries to help soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder through a new Illinois Warrior Assistance program, started in 2011. But Veterans Affairs had only $274,000 for the program.

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have higher unemployment rates than the general population — 11.1 percent in November, 2.5 percent higher than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

To address that, the state is trying to help find companies with job openings and persuade them to become part of an ongoing effort to connect veterans with jobs, Borggren said. Employers sometimes have to be sold on the skills developed in the armed forces — clerical, mechanical, electronic and computer skills, for instance — and how they translate to the civilian world.

"I think the unemployment issue is something that can't really be fixed at the federal level," Borggren said.

She said public awareness of veterans' needs seems to be strong right now, something that works in her department's favor as it looks for ways to serve returning troops. But it may not last.

Victor Smith, a 78-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who works as legislative director in Illinois for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said public attention to veterans' concerns tends to quickly fade.

"When the wars are over, you shove the veterans back in the back room," he said. "It's going to happen again; it'll fade into the background."

Follow David Mercer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP

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