By Emily Brosious
As access to government services for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reaches critical mass in the United States, grassroots organizations are stepping up to fill the gap with peer-to-peer outreach.
Illinois-based Warrior to Warrior is one such program helping returning veterans transition back to life outside the military.
Joe Franzese, program coordinator at Warrior to Warrior, said in an interview with DePaul University journalism students that many service members encounter a virtual culture shock when returning to civilian life. They frequently need assistance with a number of services while making the transition, he said.
“A lot of it is just being re-acclimated to how civilian society works, because everything in the military, you’re given direct orders. It’s really cut and dry,” Franzese said. “Coming back, it’s a challenge having to be on your own and do things on your own, having to figure out and negotiate civilian life.”
Franzese, an Iraq veteran who served five years on active duty in the Marine Corps, said Veteran’s Affairs resources have been maximized. The system is overwhelmed and under-resourced, and a lot of people are falling through the cracks, he said.
According to a study from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of veterans waiting over a year for benefits increased from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December 2012. Wait times for veterans filing in major cities like Chicago can be more than 500 days.
“When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, they didn’t anticipate them lasting 12 years,” Franzese said. “They weren’t prepared for the amount of veterans coming out and needing VA services.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the longest conflicts sustained by U.S. military operations since Vietnam.
According to a recent study from Institute of Medicine, approximately half of the 2.5 million plus troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan report inadequate care from the U.S. Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
That’s where programs like Illinois Warrior to Warrior come in. Warrior to Warrior reaches out to returning veterans and helps them access different resources in the community from education and employment opportunities, to health benefits, family services and more.
“What we’re doing specifically is giving them support. Giving them other resources that are outside of the VA, that they don’t have to wait for,” Franzese said.
Juan Perez, a veterans program assistant with Warrior to Warrior and an Afghanistan veteran, said that one of the hardest parts of coming home is getting used to a new environment.
“Warrior to Warrior helps you connect with another service member that will be there to guide you and help you through the process of transitioning,” Perez said.
The Warrior to Warrior program is privately funded by grants and donations, with a majority of funds coming from the McCormick Foundation, Franzese said.
Anna LauBach of the McCormick Foundation said they provided a $450,000 two-year grant to pilot the Chicago-region program in September 2011 and recently approved a $600,000 two-year grant to expand the program statewide.
“Our budget is continually growing,” Franzese said.
Warrior to Warrior is about 18 months old. Already, the program has serviced about 80 specific cases and done outreach to around 190 people, Franzese said.
Franzese said that a number of grassroots organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Marine Corps League, The American Legion, Wounded Warrior Project and more are utilizing peer-to-peer outreach to supplement VA services and help returning veterans make a smooth transition back to civilian life.
“There [are] a lot of them out there, which is really good, because in past eras there really wasn’t much of this,” Franzese said. “There was the VFW, but a lot of times that was just a place to gather and throw a few back.”
Franzese said veterans programs like Warrior to Warrior are steering veterans away from alcohol and substance dependency. The goal is for returning veterans to be physically and mentally healthy so they’re not stigmatized as previous generations have been, he said.