By Jennifer McDermott
As many as 8,000 veterans will return to Connecticut as the military draws down its forces overseas and cuts personnel, and the state is getting ready for them.
Officials want to express gratitude for the sacrifices of Connecticut's veterans and their families by easing the transition from military to civilian life, something that wasn't always done in the past, especially for those returning from Vietnam.
"We're crafting a new program of 'keeping the promise,'" state Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said Thursday. "When we send people off to war, America makes a compact with them that they'll take care of them . These are big steps to show those folks coming home that we do really mean what we say."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sent a letter to the heads of state agencies Thursday asking them to interview qualified veterans for open positions.
A 24/7 crisis line and a statewide network of licensed clinicians who provide free, confidential outpatient counseling are now available to all veterans and their families instead of just to National Guard and Reserve personnel and their families. The rate of suicide within the military has increased nationwide. At least four of the state's veterans committed suicide in January.
A bill that would give veterans who get arrested the opportunity to get treatment instead of going to jail is working its way through the state legislature. And at a job fair today for veterans at Rentschler Field, U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, will announce a new program to help veterans find work in the manufacturing and trade industries.
The state expects between 6,000 and 8,000 veterans to return in the next two years as the Defense Department withdraws troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and shrinks the size of the force.
Face to face
All states will face challenges as more veterans return home and reintegrate into society, said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
"One of the biggest challenges will be veterans looking for employment in today's job market," Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement to The Day. "It will all come down to the level of commitment a state makes to ensure that returning veterans have the opportunity to get their old jobs back or compete for any job for which they are qualified."
Malloy asked state agencies to interview veterans in person because their skills from the military do not always translate well on a resume for a civilian job, Schwartz said. The goal is to interview at least one veteran for each open position.
"For many of our returning veterans, finding employment will be one of their most significant challenges," Malloy said in a statement. "Our administration is committed to welcoming our nation's veterans home with every opportunity to find a fulfilling job as they begin the next phase of their life."
Merit system and contractual rules still must be followed and affirmative action plans must be considered, Malloy said. He suggested that agencies send representatives to the eighth Heroes 4 Hire Career and Benefits Fair, a veterans-only event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the Rentschler Field Ballroom in East Hartford.
Shortly before it begins, Larson will announce the Connecticut Veterans Job Match, a program to connect veterans with manufacturing and trades-related experience with employers trying to fill manufacturing and trades jobs. The state Department of Labor has targeted 1,000 veterans with these skills using its database of more than 29,000 veterans.
Veterans who do not have these skills will be told about training opportunities. Employers will be recruited through trades organizations and local chambers of commerce, and will be encouraged to take advantage of federal and state tax credits for hiring veterans.
It is modeled on the Connecticut Manufacturing Job Match Initiative, a similar program available to all unemployed residents with manufacturing experience.
"The men and women in uniform sacrifice every day to defend our freedom, the last thing they should have to fight for when they return home is the basic dignity that comes from a job," Larson said in a statement.
Along with work, veterans also may need counseling if they are having trouble readjusting, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said.
The state's Military Support Program was expanded this month so all military service members, veterans and their families may visit the clinicians and call the crisis line at (866) 251-2913.
"While most veterans re-adjust well to civilian life, many are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home and there has been an alarming increase in the number of suicides," Wyman said in a statement. "Expanding this program will provide much needed support to all veterans and their family members at this difficult time in their lives."
Last year, 12 to 14 veterans who were known to have committed suicide - or for whom there was a strong likelihood that they did - were buried in the state's veterans' cemeteries. In January of this year, there was one funeral per week for a veteran who committed suicide, Schwartz said, and there could be more that the department is not aware of. She hopes the change to the support program will start to reverse that trend.
The bill to provide pretrial diversionary programs specifically for veterans would give veterans who get arrested the opportunity to get treatment instead of a prison sentence.
"Here at Rocky Hill (the Connecticut Veterans Home), we have a lot of Vietnam veterans who wouldn't be here if they had that chance," Schwartz said. "We've learned some hard lessons from the past, and we are successfully implementing some of the lessons we learned so the folks coming home today are not going to be facing the same problems."
Miller, the Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said the issue now will be whether federal, state and local governments and community organizations can effectively reach out to this generation of veterans so they will know about the numerous programs available to them, many of which are implemented at the state and local levels.
"We have an opportunity with this new generation to get this right," he said. " We can't just try. We must succeed."