State veterans need help getting more benefits, advocates say


LANSING — Michigan ranks last among the 50 states on veterans’ funding per capita, according to a federal report.

Veterans in the state received $2.2 billion in veterans funding, for an average of $3,409 per capita in 2010, while the national average was $4,894 per capita.

The state also ranks low in per-veteran expenditures for compensation and pensions, education, vocational rehabilitation and medical care.

Some experts view the ranking differently, however.

James Topps, a director with the state’s American Legion, questioned the federal figures and said the state actually ranks 14th.

Michigan has the 11th-largest veteran population, accounting for 7.1 percent of the state’s population, according to the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

The largest proportion of Michigan veterans is from the Vietnam era, and half of them are between the ages of 50 and 70.

Topps said the reason Michigan has less-than-appealing numbers is because it’s an industrial state. “Most of the veterans are in industry so they don’t need the health care from Veterans Affairs like other states do,” he said.

Garth Wootten, president of the Michigan Association of County Veterans Counselors, cited reasons beyond the state’s control.

“We are not a retirement state and we don’t have a large military base here, so we don’t have many retired veterans coming back to live. Also, we don’t have as many younger veterans as other states do — these are the people who get higher benefits from the government,” he said.

Suzanne Thelen, the department’s public information officer, said lost jobs also are to blame.

“In the past, many veterans may not have needed or chose not to apply for benefits because they were employed, many in the auto industry, and had access to benefits at their workplace.

“Once they retire or lose their jobs, they may be unfamiliar with veterans’ benefits still available to them, years after their service to the country ended,” she said.

Additionally, many veterans aren’t aware they qualify for a variety of benefits.

“Younger veterans are less connected to veteran service organizations than veterans in the past, and may not be getting information regarding benefits available to them and how to access them,” Thelen said.

She said the department has made it a priority to increase awareness of available benefits and how to apply for them.

Angela Simpson, public affairs officer for the Michigan National Guard, said the State Department can’t decide how the money is distributed.

“Veterans’ benefits are federally funded and distributed so we can beef up information distribution a million percent, but the actual distribution of benefits is not within state control,” she said.

“It stands to reason that improved documentation and eligibility on the front end should, in turn, increase benefit distribution — but that remains to be seen,” Simpson said.

There are several programs available to veterans, both through the state and locally.

For example, the state offers assistance such as property tax waivers, children’s tuition assistance, and reduced-cost hunting, fishing and camping licenses to qualified disabled or injured veterans.

Additionally, the state will spend $400,000 over the coming year to reach out to veterans enrolled in educational and vocational programs.

Wootten said all county veterans offices are working hard and offer many programs and services.

“Some counties such as Ingham and Macomb are doing a separate veteran courts system to help them with judicial issues,” he said.

The department also has a long-standing partnership with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Purple Heart, Marine Corps Legion and the Disabled American Veterans. These groups receive $2.9 million a year to provide counseling to veterans.

“I hope more counties would pay more money to the county veteran service offices, and the public and government could show more support to these veterans’ organizations, and that may raise our ranking,” Wootten said.

Topps said, “We are fighting all the time to get more benefits for veterans. Most of our veterans are from the Vietnam War who still enjoy those benefits.”

Both Thelen and Simpson said the State Department is making efforts to do a better job.

“I know this is a hot-button issue for the adjutant general, and taking care of veterans, especially injured and unemployed veterans, is at the very top of his priority list,” Thelen said.

“Hopefully in the near future we will be able to move out of last place in terms of veterans’ benefits use,” Simpson said.

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