By KATE DANIEL
Though they make up a significant portion of the populous, Island County’s veterans don’t always feel their voices are being heard when it comes to policies and issues affecting their community.
In February, vets from all walks of life and all areas of the county had a chance to hear from and speak directly with community and state leaders at a series of town hall-style community forums.
The series culminated Feb. 18 with a forum at the Oak Harbor VFW, attended by the Governors Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee representatives and several others, including representatives from the Island County Opportunity Council and Island County Veteran Services.
At this final forum, input from the preceding events was summarized and presented to the Governor’s Committee.
A panel of speakers presented on topics such as services available and prominent issues affecting the community. Vets themselves also had the chance to speak their minds and receive answers to questions.
Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, a U.S. Army veteran and director of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, pointed out that over 35 percent of the state population is connected to the military in some way. This includes active duty service members, veterans, members of the National Guard and Reserves and those who are the children, spouses or surviving spouses of military personnel.
“Washington state is a military state, I don’t care what anybody says,” said Alvarado-Ramos, adding that one of every nine adults in Washington state is a veteran.
She listed four major issues the department is currently focusing on, concerns which were echoed by other community representatives as well as attendees later in the forum.
She first mentioned the importance of helping veterans make a successful transition out of the military and into the civilian community to decrease the prevalence of subsequent issues like veteran homelessness and unemployment.
Although she said, “we are making a dent” in the issue of veteran homelessness, increasingly high rents mean even those with steady employment are struggling to get by and support their families.
Many vets have not been able to secure employment, she said, another major problem she and others are looking to address.
“It is critical for veterans to be able to have purpose, a mission. Employment is purpose,” she said.
YesVets, a pilot project developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, aims to persuade employers to pledge to hire vets. Participating businesses who hire a veteran will be given a YesVets window decal to display.
She said the goal is to have about 9,000 veterans employed through the program within the year.
The number of incarcerated veterans, about 10 percent of those doing time, is a “significant issue” as well, she said.
Many of these vets are incarcerated because of a lapse of judgment, she noted, adding that appropriate treatment could have prevented many of these cases. For those incarcerated, efforts are being taken to assist them in leading productive, upstanding lives once released.
In addition, “veterans courts are critical” as an alternative to jail, she said, for those with underlying issues such as untreated mental illness. She also added that about 90 percent of incarcerated female veterans present military sexual trauma.
Bridgett Cantrell, a licensed mental health counselor and certified trauma specialist who contracts for the Washington State Department of Veteran’s Affairs and is CEO of Hearts Toward Home, spoke on the high rate of suicide among veterans and the profound impact of PTSD and other combat-related mental health concerns on vets, their families and communities.
Particularly in predominantly rural areas like Island County, Cantrell said there is a “dire need” for mental health care providers, especially those equipped to handle combat trauma.
The issue of adequate access to mental and physical health care was also a predominant issue brought up by several veterans following the panel presentations.
One attendee contended that the Veterans Choice Program has been an “epic failure” in Island County.
Others concurred, voicing additional grievances with the lack of providers in the vicinity willing to accept this insurance, lengthy waiting times for appointments and the difficulty of navigating the program in general.
Cantrell noted that she has had patients, some of whom she has treated for several years, taken “out from under me” because of the program’s failure.
“It’s a travesty and it has to be fixed,” she said.
Alvarado-Ramos vowed to ask lawmakers to consider more provider engagement and to advocate for more availability of providers in the Island County area.
She also noted that many bills supporting veterans were passed along to the governor during the most recent legislative session, a sign veterans are making a difference.
“We have incredible influence over what takes place in our community,” she said.