Report finds Southwest PA veterans needs mostly satisfied

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Southwest Pennsylvania has one of the densest populations of veterans in the United States.

And the region’s 235,000 former service members tend to fare well at finding work or school opportunities and participating in their communities after leaving the military, according to a new report by the Center for a New American Security [CNAS].

However, the issue of unemployment for veterans remains a persistent hurdle for veterans in the region and throughout the country, the authors wrote.

Researchers attribute some of the unemployment and economic hardship to the fact that area veterans use their GI Bill benefits significantly less than the national average. The benefits provide 36 months of education assistance to active duty or honorably discharged military.

Allegheny County contains about 90,000 of the veterans in Southwest Pennsylvania. About 9 to 12 percent of the populations of each of the 12 counties included the region are veterans, which is much higher than the national average of 6.7 percent. Most veterans in the region are older than 65.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spent $1.4 billion on Southwest Pennsylvania veterans in 2014, which averages to about $5,800 per veteran — 20 percent less than the costs throughout the United States. The VA spends more on veterans in rural counties because providing services outside of urban areas can be difficult, according to the report.

The majority of VA spending in Southwest Pennsylvania is on compensation and benefits and VA health care.

The report estimates that Pittsburgh receives around 5,200 new veterans a year. CNAS also estimates that about 37,400 veterans are from the post-9/11 era.

But pre- and post-9/11 veterans look at their benefits and wellness differently. Post-9/11 veterans tend to serve on active duty for longer and are more likely than their counterparts to use their benefits like the GI Bill, disability compensation, educational support, health care and home mortgage assistance.

Although area veterans score very well in metrics of economic and educational success, the CNAS report identifies pockets of need for veterans care.

Primarily, CNAS found unemployment to be an issue. About one-third of the veterans surveyed for the report experienced some form of unemployment in the previous year. Post-9/11 veterans are also more likely to experience financial instability or hardship.

The surveyed veterans also reported feeling disconnected from the community, although one-third of them serve in a charity or support group. Only 38 percent indicated satisfaction with veterans services in the area.

Finally, sectors serving veterans fail to coordinate their efforts. CNAS reports that veterans are typically aware of the benefits and services available, but they have little faith in them.

Other key findings include:

  • Mental health problems affect a significant number of veterans, including those who haven’t been deployed. These issues include post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and suicide. About one-fourth of all post-9/11 veterans have been diagnosed by VA clinicians with some type of mental health issue.

  • Data for veteran suicide is not available, but it’s a known problem. Post-9/11 veterans commit suicide at a 50 percent higher rate than civilians.

  • A 2009 initiative sought to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015, but about 50,000 veterans are still homeless in the United States. In Pittsburgh, there are about 180 homeless veterans.

  • U.S. veterans are less likely to be unemployed than non-veterans, but the youngest veterans have high rates of unemployment — more than 10 percent for those aged 18 to 24.

  • Southwest Pennsylvania veterans have a lower incidence of service-related disabilities, but rely on the VA for more health care.

The Heinz Endowments, which commissioned the report, contributes funding to PublicSource.

Reach Stephanie Roman at sroman@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShogunSteph.