Minnesota veterans who were deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan have returned to their families, friends, jobs or school. But rarely do they visit county veterans services offices — not even those vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.
County officials have tried to lure young veterans into these service offices through billboard and newspaper advertisements, brochures and word-of-mouth — usually with little success. In Fillmore County, center director Jason Marquardt alerted young vets to his office while telling them about a new veterans cemetery under construction in southeastern Minnesota — anything to get their attention.
Pride, resistance to government programs and a preference to use the Internet are among the reasons some avoid the services offices, officials say. And there is the simple matter of age.
“Let’s say you’ve just been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Milt Schoen, Hennepin County veterans services officer. “You are invincible. You’re always going to be strong. You don’t need to go to an office where somebody can tell you about benefits if you have PTSD.”
The centers provide an array of services, from helping vets complete forms for government-paid medical assistance to providing financial and mortgage advice to directing people to resources on health and other issues. And while younger veterans’ absence is more noticeable, it’s not only they who have eschewed the offices.
“The older veterans don’t want to come in because they think they’re taking away something from younger veterans,” Marquardt said. “The Vietnam, Korea or World War II guys either don’t want anything to do with government or don’t want to take anything.”
In John Kriesel, Anoka County has a veterans services director who is a high-profile war hero, radio personality and former legislator. He says he has asked Veterans Affairs personnel to remind patients of the county services centers and has left brochures at the VA clinic in Ramsey.
Yet, Anoka County saw the number of visits to its center fall from 7,121 in 2012 to 6,337 last year. Sherburne and Olmsted counties report similar drops — from 3,742 visits in 2012 to 3,395 last year in Sherburne’s case, and from 2,704 to 2,372 in Olmsted.
Not all counties have seen declines. In Hennepin, the number of claims filed by veterans through the services center has risen 50 percent since 2008. The number did fall from 2012 to 2013, from 1,994 to 1,883, possibly because of a diminished staff, Schoen said.
Other counties have noted sizable differences in visits by older veterans and those who served more recently.
Stearns County, for example, has a VA Medical Center in St. Cloud to alert vets to the county services center; it also serves veterans going to school at St. Cloud State University. Yet, last quarter, the county served 625 Vietnam veterans but only 397 Iraq war vets.
Terry Ferdinandt, the county’s veterans services officer, said he thinks younger vets’ tendency not to use the centers isn’t a new phenomenon. “The Vietnam veterans did the same thing. I’m sure a 20-year-old coming home in 1945 was the same way,” he said.
Gene Graff, Sherburne County veterans services officer, agrees. “It’s kind of true of a veteran returning from any war,” he said. “People just want to get back to their lives.”
Recently returned veterans are more likely to go online to have questions answered, said Maria Wetherall, director of Ramsey County’s veterans services office. She said the office now has a Facebook page and will reach out to young veterans via Twitter.
Older veterans sometimes discover the offices by word-of-mouth. Ron Williams, 55, of Farmington, served in the Navy from 1977 to 1999. He said finding the Dakota County Veterans Services Office was “extremely fortunate.”
“I went to dispute a disability award, and the officer served me quite well, answering questions I might not have thought to ask,” Williams said Thursday. “I felt so fortunate to have found the right people.”
But Mike Clark, 67, of Anoka, may be more typical. Clark, who served in the Army in the late 1950s and now is in Anoka County’s honor guard, said he hasn’t gone to a veterans services office in 10 or 15 years.
“At first, I wasn’t interested,” he said. “And now, I feel as if I’ve been compensated enough. There’s really no need.”
Kriesel tries to remind veterans he’s seen that “the services are paid for by the government and that they’ve earned them. They’ve put their lives on the line.”
Kriesel himself lost his legs and suffered other injuries from a roadside bomb in Iraq.
While Minnesota does not keep statewide statistics on visits to county veterans services centers, some are apparently busier than others. The Morrison County office, which is 7 miles from Camp Ripley, is extremely busy, with 11 percent of its clientele coming from other counties.
Still, Paul Froncak, the center’s director, says: “I’ve been doing this for 28 years and the problem doesn’t change. How do you get a four-year Marine veteran into this office? How do you let him know the office exists?
“I call these veterans young immortals. You have to get them and maybe talk about a knee, but you have to gain their trust to talk about PTSD issues. And getting them into these offices hasn’t been easy.”