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.
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."
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