Texas has a rich legacy of military service that continues today in its large and vibrant active-duty and veteran military community. More than 1.6 million veterans call Texas home; 386,358, or roughly one-fourth of all veterans statewide, live in the Dallas–Fort Worth (DFW) area.1 Veterans of all generations reside in this region, including approximately 57,000 post-9/11 veterans. Veterans comprise between 5.7 percent (in Dallas County) and 14.6 percent (in Hood County) of each county’s total population, compared with the national average of 6.7 percent. Within the region, the veteran population is most concentrated in the core urban and suburban areas of Dallas and Fort Worth. However, significant numbers of them also live on the periphery of these urban centers, driven by housing costs and economic opportunity. Diverse challenges – access to VA services, economics, housing, transportation issues – face the region’s veterans and the various agencies, nonprofits, and support groups that serve them. This report discusses these issues and makes recommendations for public, private, and nonprofit action to address the issues facing the DFW region’s veteran community.
The King Foundation and a collaborative of funders commissioned the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) to assess the needs of veterans in the region to assist in planning future philanthropic investment by the Foundation and its partners.2 This report summarizes research conducted by CNAS researchers between August 2015 and February 2016, using a mixed-methods approach that included qualitative research on regional trends; quantitative research using data made public by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and other agencies; a targeted survey of veterans in the region; and discussion groups with participants representing more than 50 organizations that serve those veterans.
The following assessment attempts to answer the following research questions: What is the state of veterans in the DFW region? Where do needs exist among the DFW veteran population? How are the needs of veterans being met in the DFW region? What are the main efforts at meeting the needs of veterans? How does the coordination of existing services take place, and is there a collaborative structure in the region that guides investments, services, and the overall care?
The research produced a number of observations and conclusions regarding issues facing veterans and military families in the region. Foremost among them were the following:
- As aforementioned, the DFW region is home to approximately 386,358 veterans, making up roughly 1.8 percent of the national veteran population. Veterans comprise 8.1 percent of the adult DFW population, making it one of the denser veteran communities in the nation.
- In 2014, the VA spent nearly $2.5 billion in the region, with major expenditures divided between benefits in the form of compensation and pensions ($1.3 billion), medical care ($844 million), and education and vocational rehabilitation ($292 million).
- The DFW Metroplex has a large influence on a diverse spectrum of communities, ranging from rural outlying counties like Wise County in the northwest and Hood County in the southwest to urban communities in downtown Dallas and Fort Worth.
- Vietnam-era veterans make up the largest proportion of the DFW region’s overall veteran population. According to feedback from interviews and working groups, the Vietnam-era cohort presents the highest amount of need for services.
- Female veterans in the region face acute obstacles, including difficulty in accessing women’s health care specialists and challenges in finding housing or shelter.
- Regional transportation shortfalls were listed as an access barrier for veterans seeking health care, benefits, and employment in nearly all interviews and working groups. Compounding these transportation issues are the distances from outlying counties to VA resources – in some cases, VA patients must travel more than 80 miles to the main VA hospital in southern Dallas.
- Resources in Texas are strongly rooted at the county level. Coordination between public, private, and nonprofit organizations varies across the counties, ranging from formal collectives in Tarrant, Dallas, Denton, and Collin counties to more informal networks of resources in rural outlying areas.
Chapter 2 provides the methodology for the assessment and provides additional context regarding the project’s scope. Chapter 3 gives an overview of both the national and Texas-specific veteran populations and provides context for the assessment of veterans in the DFW region. Chapter 4 provides the report’s findings from research in the DFW region, including information gathered through surveys, working groups, and interviews. Chapter 5 concludes the study with a number of observations and conclusions based on the research.
Veterans in the DFW region comprise a significant percentage of the local population, and play a significant role in the regional community. The overall story regarding these veterans is a positive one, fueled by a thriving local economy in which veterans do quite well as a group. However, many veterans across the region face issues in their transition to civilian life, or in the years following that transition, including health, economic opportunity, wellness, and the difficulty in navigating a sea of organizations serving veterans who do not often collaborate or coordinate closely. These issues and challenges are reported with enough consistency and regularity that they merit attention for strategic attention or investment in the region.
The Collaborative Environment
The working groups and interviews with those providing services to DFW veterans evoked a sense of hopeful optimism. Throughout the region, whether in downtown Dallas or Fort Worth or in the rural areas, community leaders shared a sincere passion to assist veterans. While some challenges currently lack institutional solutions, a spirit of sacrifice and community was evident; for example, some veterans service officers were transporting individuals to medical appointments in their off hours in the capacity as private citizens, or covering expenses for veterans in their community out of their own pockets. Participants in working groups used the opportunity to build connections and appeared very willing to find ways to collaborate in their communities.
The Dallas–Fort Worth region appears to have several pockets of community-based resources and collaboration typically centered at the county level. Groups such as the Collin County Veterans Coalition and the Veterans Coalition of Tarrant County draw together local community leaders and resources from the VA, housing organizations, universities and community colleges, and mental health care providers. The North Texas MyVA Community3 effort began convening regional meetings in November 2015, focusing community resources on such issues as veteran homelessness. Joining Community Forces Texas coordinates with existing coalitions across the full spectrum of veteran services.4 Statewide groups, such as the Texas Veterans Commission, provide valuable information regarding the availability of services at the local level. However, these structures tend to exist at the community or county level; there does not seem to be an overarching or unifying infrastructure for the range of veteran services at the regional level. There are also few examples of infrastructure outside the veteran community that could serve as a model or backbone for such regional collaboration or coordination. This local focus mirrors the political, economic, and social history of the region, which has placed a premium on local governance and scale.
Across the country, a number of communities have launched efforts to better communicate, coordinate, and collaborate with respect to veteran services.5 These local models vary widely, from relatively low-touch approaches involving referral resources, to more robust case-management and strategic resource-allocation systems. These local models have typically evolved in ways that reflect local political and economic circumstances, as well as the needs of veterans in those locations. The DFW region’s lack of regional infrastructure, and the historical focus on the county and community level, suggests that a collaborative approach on the lighter end of the spectrum may be most appropriate for the DFW region. Such an approach might focus on building better communication and referral infrastructure between the 13 counties, or finding ways to further empower the counties to meet the needs of veterans within their boundaries, such as through enhanced public-private-nonprofit partnerships.
Female veterans in the region reported some specific challenges separate from the broader veteran community. Access to women’s health care appears difficult for female veterans, particularly through the VA system. Interviewees in both the Metroplex and the outlying areas reported that female veterans struggling with homelessness faced more difficulty in placement than male veterans in a similar circumstance. In part, it was reported that homeless female veterans were more likely than male homeless veterans to be accompanied by their children. This complicates their placement in two ways: First, while a homeless male veteran needs one bed, an accompanied homeless female veteran needs multiple beds, thus decreasing the odds of placement. Second, the presence of any convicted sex offender within the male homeless population requires that men and women with children cannot be housed in the same emergency shelter, removing options for women with children. Interviewees and working-group participants mentioned an increased need for women-centric homeless shelters. Homeless female veterans with families may face an additional obstacle – the risk that they could lose custody of their children.6 A study of those receiving Department of Labor grants to combat homelessness revealed that “veterans with dependent children may worry about being identified as homeless and fear the misperception that they are not good parents, which can mean investigations by child protective services and possible loss of custody.”7
Census Tract Level Maps - All Veterans and Post-9/11 Veterans in the DFW Region
Service providers, VA employees, and veterans alike highlighted the increasing demands Vietnam-era veterans place on available resources in the region. A typical Vietnam-era veteran who turned 18 in 1966 is now 68 years old. As this cohort ages, its needs for health care and other forms of support are increasing. Working-group participants in Collin County and in downtown Fort Worth both reported evidence of increased mental health care needs among the Vietnam-era cohort, particularly as they transition into full retirement from their civilian careers. This observation was further confirmed by VA Vet Center employees in the eastern counties of Rockwall, Kaufman, and Hunt, who note that the transition to retirement and the availability of leisure time is increasing the amount of time Vietnam veterans have to ruminate on their wartime experience – something many of them hadn’t yet processed, as they returned home from war over 40 years ago to the responsibilities of jobs and families. Additionally, some Vietnam-era veterans on the younger side of the cohort reported a shortage of employment opportunities; those who need to continue working for financial reasons are facing competition from younger applicant pools. In addition to the acuity of its demand, the Vietnam-era cohort is a large segment of the overall population, dwarfing the size of the Gulf War I and post-9/11 cohorts because of the size of the military during the Vietnam War and the use of conscription during that period. Consequently, Vietnam-era veterans create a great deal of demand for all parts of the veterans support ecosystem, including public, private, and nonprofit organizations.
Grant Writing Education
In the smaller outlying rural counties, small organizations and local individuals provide services at a much higher rate than in the Metroplex, where many more federal and state resources are consolidated. These small organizations depend heavily on small grants from public and private sources for their organizational sustenance. Yet precisely because of their small staff sizes and desire to run “shoestring” operations, many of these local service providers do not maintain grant writing expertise in-house. Working group participants and interviewees in Hood, Hunt, and Wise counties in particular each commented that grant writing workshops would be a useful resource for their organizations, allowing them to leverage their small operations with the minimal amount of overhead and manpower necessary and enabling them to direct their resources where they are needed most – with the veterans in their communities. Small, local, and particularly lean nonprofits can also benefit from other areas of capacity building, shared services, and support, to include pro bono legal advice, accounting, and marketing efforts.
Financial Literacy Training
Whether working with fully transitioned veterans or members of the Guard and Reserve, many participants and interviewees noted a need for greater financial literacy training for veterans and their families. It was the opinion of many service providers that military service did not necessarily provide veterans with the skills they needed to handle their money well. Financial literacy training would enable veterans to become more self-sufficient with the resources they currently have on hand, and enable them to leverage additional resources as they become available.
One of the greatest opportunities for impact is in facilitating transportation for veterans. The relative economic success of North Texas has forced many to live in areas outside of public transportation, making a car the only feasible means of transit – but a costly option in terms of dollars spent on cars and fuel, as well as commuting time based on the region’s distance and traffic calculus. This impediment can lead to loss of employment, inability to receive medical care, and overall isolation. The transportation services that do exist are often limited by county lines and already overburdened. Additionally, providing transportation raises an issue of liability that many smaller organizations cannot afford to risk or cover with insurance.
Economic Opportunities for the Post-9/11 Cohort
Though the overall veteran employment picture is optimistic, with average salaries higher than nonveteran counterparts, the post-9/11 cohort often suffers from “underemployment,” a much harder-to-track phenomenon wherein veterans are employed in jobs that are below their accustomed skill set or level of responsibility. To some extent, this phenomenon may be related to the region’s hot job market, and be an unintended consequence of veterans finding work quickly, but in positions that may not match their skills and experience well. The underemployment phenomenon may also result from continuing difficulty with alignment of military skills and experience to civilian employment. One of the key areas for mitigating many of the challenges facing post-9/11 veterans is in their transition out of the military. Areas for assistance include providing aid in the translation of military skills to a civilian résumé and the ability to be housed during the transition period if they have not found employment yet.
When interviewing multiple stakeholders in the DFW veteran community, it became apparent that the lens through which one views the most pressing needs of veterans varies widely. This contributes to the picture of veteran wellness as “holistic,” making it important not to focus solely on one particular aspect – the whole picture is necessary. Though providing a homeless veteran with shelter is immensely important, it is difficult to end the cycle of homelessness without also accounting for factors such as employment and mental health. This raises the importance of communication throughout the veteran community, as individual efforts will likely be more successful when implemented in concert with other programs.
The historic propensity toward military service in the Dallas–Fort Worth region has created a diverse veteran population in both rural and urban contexts. While most veterans transition from service successfully, needs still exist across the region. Data-driven studies, supplemented with the observations of local stakeholders, can inform public, private, and nonprofit organizations on areas where need exists, as well as where there are gaps not being filled by current programs. We are grateful to the Dallas-based consortium of funders for commissioning this study, and recommend further research on the issues identified herein, in order to continue informing the community serving veterans in the Dallas–Fort Worth region and throughout the United States.
The full report is available online.