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How a local levy, up for renewal on Aug. 16, has helped struggling veterans

Proposition 1, to renew the King County Veterans and Human Services Levy, is on voter ballots mailed this week. Veterans using resources from the 2005 levy have poignant stories to tell.

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Family Reunion

Proposition 1, to renew the King County Veterans and Human Services Levy, is on voter ballots mailed this week. Veterans using resources from the 2005 levy have poignant stories to tell.

Army Sgt. Jerome Patterson described returning to the U.S. after two tours as a sniper in Iraq: "When I got back in '07, I never really was told by family that I had changed quite a bit and needed to go to the V.A. and get checked out." But a concerned friend contacted Joel Estey, project manager at the King County Veterans Program (KCVP), and Estey contacted Patterson. "He started taking me to the V.A. hospital and I got my claim put in and got treated for my back. I was blown up in Iraq and have a lower back injury."

Patterson now receives PTSD therapy, too, at KCVP partner agency Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation. "No charge," he told me. "For me, it’s hard to get a job. I can’t be around large numbers of people and anyway I was a recon sniper and there’s not a lot of call for that [kind of work] here. I get really anxious, on edge, always watching people. My heart starts beating fast, and I hyperventilate. I tried to kind of insert myself in more of a radical way last year and went to a concert. The pyrotechnics on the stage freaked me out."

Voters on the Aug. 16 primary will decide whether to renew the levy, which is on the ballot as King County Proposition 1. The measure calls for an additional regular property tax at a rate of up to five cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That's the same rate as approved in 2005. The cost for the owner of a house worth $340,000, the median price here in March 2011, is estimated to be $17 per year, raising $13 million annually if the levy is approved.

Since 2005, the Veterans and Human Services Levy has let KCVP extend its outreach and agency partnerships to provide veterans and their families with counseling, urgent financial aid, housing referrals, employment training, legal support, and help with securing federal benefits. During 2010, for example, the levy paid for 17,482 emergency and transitional bed nights.

The levy's funds are split 50-50 between veterans' services and general health and human services.

So, Patterson is also getting treated for a drinking problem. His recovery is progressing. "My V.A. counselor said I’m way less on edge and better with people around me." Still, a sense of isolation pervades his life. "I miss the camaraderie of being around the same kind of guys I was."

Can Patterson's PTSD be cured? "They say I’ll never get rid of it but learn to control it. Been seeing (my therapist) at Valley for about a year now, and she says I’ve come a long way. When I first got home I stayed with my mom, and she could hear me screaming from down the hall at night. I don’t think I scream in my sleep anymore, but I'm not sure."

The hours of personal attention from Estey as he shepherded Patterson to appointments, ongoing guidance for Patterson from KCVP staff, and sustained PTSD counseling would have been impossible without the King County Veterans and Human Services Levy.

Why do recently returned veterans need such personalized care? Though they're not demonized as were soldiers who fought in Vietnam, and though re-entering civilian life after fighting a war has never been easy, it's especially hard for new vets to feel at home again in America. The vast majority of Americans live their lives at a great personal and emotional distance from today's wars and warriors.

Only 1 percent of the population has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with 10-11 percent during World War II and the Vietnam conflict, when nine out of ten Americans personally knew at least one member of the armed forces involved. My uncle, leaving the Army to return home to New York in 1945, could be confident of running into veterans or close friends of vets when he stopped in some bar, even if they didn't talk about their service. Today, we don't even get regular news stories about our current wars, in part because they seem so shapeless and endless, making it hard for reporters to discern compelling story lines.

So although soldiers have always been taught to meet pain with stoic endurance, many of our new veterans bear their burdens in a curiously abstract kind of isolation, especially among neighbors with Facebooking habits of connecting socially. As Sheila Sebron, disabled Air Force veteran and member of the King County Coalition to End Homelessness governing board, put it in a phone interview, “You’re there and not there.”

But veterans don’t want to be victims. They want to come home, integrate into the community without needing special treatment, and move on with their lives.

To achieve this, said retired colonel Mary Forbes of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA), veterans won't just "walk in somewhere and talk with someone about their personal life. They want to get to know you, trust you,” she told me. “It takes one-on-one relationships,” which WDVA provides with the help of levy-supported outreach and counseling services. Connecting veterans with their benefits and entitlements is complicated, too, said Forbes. "They have to apply for it, and [many need] brokers through this tedious process."

To this picture of our newest veterans Audrey Hudgins, on the faculty of Seattle University and advising student vets there after serving 20 years in the Army, added other factors. “It’s a war-based military now, whereas prior generations could spend an entire career in the service and never face combat," she said. "Multiple deployments also take a toll.”

Throw in the scarcity of jobs that helped veterans in the past reconnect with their communities: unemployment among vets is currently at 20 percent, twice the national average. Bob Woodruff, an ABC correspondent wounded by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq (here July 15 for a Seattle Town Hall program, “Are We Serving Our Veterans?”) described the economic plight of today's vets as “different from the World War II generation," in a KIRO-FM interview. Those warriors were welcomed back as heroes by a nation with an “economy going through the roof,” Woodruff said.

Now, besides a bleak jobs outlook and a sense of anonymity, thousands of vets have traumatic brain injuries from explosive devices, he said. Invisible war trauma and economic hardship have increased divorce, homelessness, and suicide among veterans. Yet today's typical American response, said Woodruff, is “throw them a parade, wave the flag, and then go shopping.”

Many King County veterans have received a much deeper response to their needs.

Richard Montgomery, in the Marines from 2004 to 2009, went to Iraq in 2007 as a computer networking specialist and then was transferred to an artillery unit. "Our mission was providing security for the army — explosive ordinance disposal. Drive around in the desert, disarm IED's, dispose of them. Nothing can really prepare you for the experience."

After leaving the Marines, Montgomery said, "I kind of got overlooked and didn't get connected with the V.A. The process isn't very logical." So he wasn't diagnosed with PTSD for almost two years. "I had no idea I had it. I just thought I was depressed." Meanwhile, he couldn't find a job, his marriage failed, and he ended up sleeping on a cousin's couch. "The deal was for three months. Then three more months." Then he was out on the streets.

KCVP staff stepped up. "My social worker there — she's my personal motivation every week. I started at Bellevue College this summer and will be full time in the fall. Then the GI Bill will pay for my housing." Earlier he had attended Seattle Central CC, but had to drop out when his benefits failed to come through. "The V.A. office was just not very helpful, or maybe I wasn't asking for the right things at the right time. It's probably just as much my fault."

About educational support for veterans Mark Fischer, program manager of WDVA's VetCorps (watch two marvelous videos of young vets at the bottom of the VetCorps webpage), said, “It’s a misperception that college for vets is all put together for them. Many don’t get enough money to deal with all their expenses from the GI Bill, so they may live in a truck, or don’t have enough to buy food. Levy funds help prevent them from dropping out."

Montgomery's luck, at least, is changing. The V.A. rep at Bellevue College helped him understand how the GI Bill works so that once he's in school full time, "the basic allowance will come through for things like housing," he said. Meanwhile, "my social worker is my liaison but also emotional support and continuity. And she has helped me out in various ways, paid for the bus and my driver's license, helped me shop for clothes and get the money for books. I finally have the resources I need to go to school."

Until he's a full-time student with GI Bill funding coming in, he's homeless and sleeps at a Bellevue church. "I've met other vets in the shelter," he said. "The churches cook dinner for us every night, make sandwiches for us to take out for the day, and we can eat breakfast every morning." A case manager "helps everybody set goals and meet them in their life. My goal is to go to school full time and finish school. Finally I'll be doing what I want."

The 50-50 split of levy funds between veteran and other human services keeps people like Patterson and Montgomery from having to traipse back and forth between a dozen agencies to get what they need, said Sebron. “The levy puts together the pieces that I had to piece together for my own services. It’s really the first time that all these agencies and community groups have become integrated and coordinated.”

In this respect, Sebron said, the levy goes far toward solving, locally at least, the huge problem described by General Peter Chiarelli in his talk at the UW in May: the fragmentation among services set up to give veterans what they need and deserve. The levy helps King County agencies “work together to connect all the disparate parts,” Sebron said.

Forbes agreed. "The web of touch points created by the levy has leveraged the knowledge of community partners — schools, police, employers, community health clinics, call centers.”  Through trainings funded by the levy, she said, 3,000 people in King County organizations serving veterans have learned how to work more effectively, and together, on behalf of the county's 131,000 resident vets.

Army PFC Jim Beal is one of them. He was in Alpha Company in Vietnam 1971-1972, and became disabled years later with cardiac illness caused by exposure to Agent Orange. "Most of my time in Vietnam was in the bush. We ran search-and-destroy missions going into landing zones cleared by defoliants, but I don’t think anybody knew about their harmful effects."

After leaving the Army in 1973 Beal "had a job before my first unemployment check could arrive." Cardiac problems didn't manifest until 1997. "I was 43 and the doctor said I was in the beginning stage of heart failure. But I'm the classic case of someone who worked all his life, so I put myself back to work" — managing a 30-store auto-body repair company.

Still, four heart attacks, seven angioplasties, and open heart surgery took their toll. "I couldn’t work anymore and pretty much lost everything — my job, my nice luxury apartment, all my resources — and ended up in Seattle's Compass Center shelter for the homeless."

With the help of King County agencies receiving levy funds, Beal moved to a veterans' home in Burien and met with doctors who helped him file for disability. He has congestive heart failure, "but I'm still working on my art projects. I do veterans' art, war art. I recently donated a piece for auction to benefit veteran services. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I was a classic example of how an illness can wipe out your resources and leave you destitute. Now I can live a decent life for whatever is left."

As has occurred under the 2005 levy, nonpartisan citizen boards will oversee disbursements and implementation plans of the kind that have helped more than 82,000 veterans, their families, and others in King County.

Since 2005, 84 percent of veterans served have improved their housing, employment, or income; 95 percent receiving PTSD treatment reduced their symptoms; and 93 participating families were kept from homelessness by small one-time grants that helped them meet housing, utilities, or food expenses.

As Forbes observed, "Other counties in the state struggle the best they can without the resources King County has through the levy." Hudgins said, "We still need our military." And considering the sacrifices they make, "we need to reflect on what sort of small price we might pay for what they give us."

  

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How a local levy, up for renewal on Aug. 16, has helped struggling veterans

About the Authors & Contributors

Judy Lightfoot

As part of Crosscut’s coverage of social concerns, Judy Lightfoot writes about how the region's people confront a variety of challenges. She often draws on her weekly one-on-one coffees with individuals sharing our public spaces who are socially isolated by homelessness or mental illness. Formerly a teacher and professor, she also writes about books, education, and the arts. Email judy.lightfoot@crosscut.com.