Veterans organizations from across Massachusetts were represented at the grand opening Thursday of a student veteran resource lounge at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.
The dedicated space just off the college’s main student lounge features a world map dotted with pins indicating where the college’s 80 student veterans served in the U.S. and across the globe. Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Services Coleman Nee says the commonwealth has seen an explosion of student vets as 45,000 service members have returned from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11.
“We need to be able to support those student veterans while they’re on campus understanding they’re non-traditional students with some very unique circumstances that have led them to that college campus and also some unique challenges and obstacles that they’re overcoming,” said Nee.
Chris Broast was deployed to Iraq for eight months as a member of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. Now in his first year at Berkshire Community College studying human services, Broast is a member of the school’s Student Veterans Alliance.
“Yeah, it was rough for me,” Broast said. “I was discharged in 2010 and for a couple years I was having problems reintegrating. I didn’t really use the VA to its full capacity. Through trial and tribulation last year I got into the VA a little more actively and started using the resources to allow myself to get better mentally because that was my biggest issue. I had PTS and I started getting treatment for that. That pushed me toward the goal of coming back to school and furthering my education so I can help other veterans.”
Using $15,000 from a U.S. Department of Labor Grant, the college furnished the lounge and created a part-time Veterans Affairs position to help student vets navigate benefits and career services. Secretary Nee says the state’s 370,000 veterans face challenges in navigating a state benefit system designed for the nearly one million men who returned from World War II.
“What the veterans in Massachusetts are particularly finding here today is that most of them are deployed out of the Guard or Reserve,” Nee said. “They’ve done multiple deployments which is very unusual when you benchmark it against other conflicts. These are folks that leave their families, leave their jobs and leave their lifestyles. They take financial hits. They’re gone for holidays. Their kids don’t have mom or dad around. When they come back they’re coming back to a society that doesn’t necessarily have the big bases that we have down South where everybody’s husband, everybody’s wife or everyone’s parents are deployed.”
One of the most difficult systems to navigate is veteran health care. Nee believes the future lies in public and private partnerships between the state, the VA and organizations like the Home Base Program. With a clinic in Boston, Home Base offers health care to post-9/11 veterans, regardless of discharge status, and their families. Travis Weiner is the organization’s Veteran Outreach Coordinator.
“We work very closely with the VA,” Weiner said. “Many of our clinicians have experience there. We cross refer. We understand that there’s gaps that each of us can fill. For example, our relationship with metro-Boston VA is such, that if a clinician at the VA encounters a veteran with a non-honorable discharge status, they know to refer them directly to us.”
The result of a partnership between Massachusetts General Hospital and the Red Sox Foundation, Home Base specializes in mental health care and offers discounted transportation programs for veterans who require travel to receive care. It will soon open another clinic in Manchester, New Hampshire and plans to expand across New England. Meanwhile, Secretary Nee says the federal government shutdown slowed the state’s work on a backlog of veterans’ claims, but didn’t get to a point where cities and towns had to step in to replace federal funding.
“I mean $68 million in compensation and pension per month comes into Massachusetts from the VA,” Nee said. “You don’t pay those checks that’s $68 million out of the economy on day one. A lot of those folks live off of that. So that would’ve been a significant challenge for them and a lot of them were stressed about that. I just hope we don’t get to the brink again where we’re putting those folks through that.”
Information regarding benefits and services for veterans in Massachusetts can be found by clicking here.