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As veterans come home - will they have one?

More than one million veterans who have served the country in places across the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan, will be returning soon. When they come home, they are being greeted by welcoming parties, grateful families and appreciative neighbors. They will join the ranks of approximately 21 million other veterans who have served since WWII.

When the homecoming festivities die down, the challenging task of reintegrating these veterans into the community begins. Local leaders can play an important role in the process, according to Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey. He addressed the National League of Cities’ 2013 Congressional City Conference in March. Dempsey also spoke about the unique qualities and assets that veterans bring to their communities.

South Carolina has traditionally led the way in supporting the military and its veterans. The Palmetto State has a heavy military footprint with bases throughout the lowcountry and midlands, including Fort Jackson in Columbia, the Army’s largest initial entry training center in the country. The state is also home to the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot and Air Station in Beaufort, Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Columbia, Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek and Coast Guard Base in Charleston.

Just as these installations are an integral part of the state so are the more than 400,000 veterans that call South Carolina home. South Carolina’s relatively low housing costs and attractive climate have enticed veterans to stay or move to the Palmetto State. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, veterans represent about 11 percent of the state’s population, compared to about 9 percent of the U.S. population.

Determining local veterans’ needs is a critical first step in making an impact. While not all needs are the same, housing cuts across all demographics.

Because veterans are more likely to be older and have more than twice the likelihood of having some form of disability, their housing needs often involve rehabilitating or retrofitting their existing homes to allow them to age in place and maintain the maximum amount of self-sufficiency.

More than half (53 percent) of the state’s veterans are from the Vietnam era or earlier. Thirty-four percent served in the Gulf War I (1991-2000) or II (2001-present).

Those returning home from the Middle East are having a harder time transitioning back into the community, according to Elisha Harig-Blaine, senior associate, Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) for the National League of Cities’ Center for Research and Innovation.

”Today’s returning veterans face a unique set of opportunities to offer their communities, but likewise, they also face challenges that can make their reintegration process all the more difficult,” explained Harig-Blaine. “When our men and women leave home for military service, the lives they’ve left at home go on. When they return home, not only have they experienced life-changing situations, but so have their families, their neighborhood and their previous networks of contacts.”

In addition to housing, these veterans tend to need re-education of job skills, behavioral health and psychological health support, and connections to entitled benefits.

The Department of Veterans Affairs offers an e-benefits program, which connects veterans to benefits such as healthcare and disability. The Department of Labor offers veterans’ employment and training services, and there are numerous U.S. Housing and Urban Development programs that can assist veterans, including the HUDVet Directory designed to assist with the planning and delivery of community-based services for veterans.

While veterans represent about 9 percent of the U.S. population, veterans comprise about 16 percent of the homeless population. There is also a growing need to provide services for female homeless veterans. Recognizing this trend, the federal government has allocated resources for homeless veterans, including homeless assistance grants from HUD.

The National League of Cities has resources to help local officials determine the needs that veterans may have, identify other organizations working on the issue that local communities can partner with, and share approaches other cities have taken.

Most importantly, if you are a community leader who wants to make sure our veterans receive the welcome home they deserve, your ability to use your leadership position is essential,” said Harig-Blaine.

Gather together stakeholders who work with veterans. Ask them how well do they understand what each other does, how often do they meet, what challenges do they collectively identify as being unmet, if there are any services that are offered by multiple organizations that could be streamlined.

No matter what, the leadership shown by elected officials will not solve all problems for all veterans. No one level of government, faith organization or nonprofit organization can do that. That said, what local leaders can do is convene stakeholders, hold them accountable to making substantive and measurable progress, and when things get tough, local leaders can remind their community members that “we can figure out how to do this” is an acceptable answer. “Our men and women deserve nothing more than their community coming together to say ‘How can we collectively come together to say YES,’” concluded Harig-Blaine.

For more information, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine at harig-blaine@nlc.org.