When it comes to addressing the needs of returning veterans, bigger isn’t better. Though it might sound counterintuitive, there simply are too many disparate organizations ineffectively servicing the needs of veterans. In military parlance, it is termed” groundswell without focus.”
The result: redundant services, wasteful services or sometimes no services at all, depending on a veteran’s particular needs.
According to a report last year from the Center for New American Security, a Washington-based think tank focused on national security and defense policy, veterans are not receiving the care and services they need to transition successfully from military to civilian life. A 2012 survey of veterans in the Metro Atlanta area by the Georgia Center for Nonprofits starkly illustrates this point that is playing out around the nation. Nearly 60 percent of veteran respondents were not aware of any state-specific services available to veterans in Georgia – even though there are approximately 146 nonprofits in the Metro Atlanta area that service veterans.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In 2012, the Joint Chiefs’ Office published a white paper titled “Sea of Goodwill.” It posited that the return of a service member to civilian society would be enhanced by the more than 400,000 organizations operating to bridge the gaps and improve the outcomes of soldiers transitioning to civilian lives.
The problem is, the groundswell of support for our troops has led to an overabundance of veterans groups, which in turn is leading to a chilling effect. With redundant efforts, groups compete for the same resources – and donors are becoming skeptical that the cause they support is really having any effect at all.
Compounding the challenge is America’s lack of firsthand familiarity with people who serve in the U.S. military. This disconnect will grow stronger when America is no longer considered at war. At a time when the need will be greatest, interest will diminish due to this lack of awareness. Veterans will struggle in a peacetime status quo.
The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs, projects that the number of veterans from recent conflicts will jump by 26 percent in the next three years. The Department of Veterans Affairs has more than 800,000 claims for health needs and benefits in its queue and simply cannot handle the requests fast enough.
That leaves our veterans seeking critical education, health care and employment services through nonprofits and private-sector charities. Many of these 400,000 groups hesitate to integrate. And well-meaning individuals often decide to start new groups rather than work with existing ones.
What our veterans desperately need are like-minded and complementary organizations that coordinate the delivery of “wrap-around” services (education, employment, health care, transportation, housing, etc.) in their communities. But organizations feel threatened by this. They think it will strip them of their identity or dissolve their authority and leadership on the issue.
Not true. In fact, consolidation will strengthen an organization’s impact because the focus goes far beyond individual influence.
To these groups, we have a very simple call to action: Leave your ego at the door. Follow the military model, which gathers disparate people and skills together to solve a larger issue. Anticipate future needs and work together to solve them. We need to reverse the thinking that “bigger is better” and focus on locally provided, community-based services. We need the Department of Veterans Affairs to make it easier to promote these community services to veterans.
We also need the 1.6 million U.S. nonprofits to include veterans and their families. For example, even though we’ve seen a marked increase in cancer rates and respiratory deaths among the veteran population, the American Cancer Society is only addressing cancers caused by Agent Orange, a Vietnam-era chemical. It’s time for ACS to more strongly embrace veterans of all overseas deployments as part of its existing programs.
Great resources exist for our veterans. Let’s put them to efficient and immediate use by doing the unthinkable – consolidating efforts and anticipating future needs.
Benjamin Franklin properly observed that there is no greater wrong than squandering time: “If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality.”
We cannot wait any longer to solve this problem. More than 2 million Americans have been deployed overseas in the last decade and shortly most all of them will be home when the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan officially ends in 18 months.
Time is a wasting.