We owe it to New Jersey's Iraq veterans to get ready for their return


"They’re entitled to the best when they get home. But I don’t know if we’ll be ready to give it"

Posted by The Star-Ledger Editorial Board

Tara Maffei had been caught in a bureaucratic maze for days, her phone calls shuffled from one cubicle to another in Trenton, from one bureaucrat to another in Washington, D.C., as she tried to find someone — anyone — who could decipher the benefits for a recently discharged New Jersey veteran.

The soldier — homeless with a family, unemployed and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — was seeking food and shelter from Family Promise, a faith-based charity in Monmouth County. Maffei, the executive director, was determined to assist, if only someone could explain this stuff in plain English.

She finally found her savior: a clerk in the Office of Military Affairs in Washington. She thanked him for his patience.


"We haven’t had many veterans and their families," she told him. "So, I don’t really know a lot about military benefits."

"You’d better learn," he said. "You’re about to be swamped."

In four months, more than 3,000 New Jersey Army National Guard members, the state’s largest deployment since World War II, will be coming home from Iraq. And if you talk to veterans advocates at grassroots levels around New Jersey, one thing is clear:

We’re not ready for them.

"I don’t know how New Jersey is going to handle this," says John Doherty, Ocean County Director of Veteran Affairs. "The federal government will publish a lot of memos. They’ll hold meetings, and they’ll hold meetings about holding meetings, but that’s just for show.

"It’s going to be a mess. The numbers are overwhelming. The system is already overburdened. New Jersey is not prepared. Hopefully, the Johnny-come-latelys in Trenton will wake up."

Here’s the first thing New Jersey lawmakers can do: Pass legislation requiring each county to establish a veterans affairs office.

Currently, only 12 of the state’s 21 counties have them. Doherty says counties like his that have veterans offices are helping soldiers from counties that don’t. Federal studies show that a veteran receives more in benefits — and more quickly — when represented by an advocate at the county level. But this summer, when the long lines form and counties give their residents priority, the out-of-county soldiers could fall through the cracks.

New Jersey soldiers will be coming home — some of them broken physically, mentally or both — to a complicated benefits program already choking on paperwork. A recent study showed the V.A.’s backlog of disability claims exceeds 650,000, an increase of 200,000 since the Iraq war started in 2003. Veterans groups estimate that 20 percent of returning service members eventually will enter the benefits system.

Although the Veterans Administration says most claims are answered in three to six months, Doherty says claims usually take a year. Appeals can drag for five years. This will worsen when tens of thousands of returning soldiers enter the system.

A resolution, now idling in the House of Representatives, would funnel some money directly to county agencies and help veterans receive treatment more quickly, Doherty says.

There are other problems, of course: Soldiers will be returning to a deep recession, which will make their transition to civilian life even rockier. Many will discover their jobs no longer exist. Counties should start organizing veterans’ job banks now.

And, while trying to get by on modest Guard stipends, hundreds of New Jersey Guard members may have fallen behind on their mortgage payments and could be facing foreclosure. They will need mortgage modification assistance, too.

Small groups around the state are trying to get ready for the homecoming, with or without government assistance. Monmouth University’s School of Social Work has created the "Coming Home Project," a panel of professors, social work students and community practitioners attempting meet the needs of the returning soldiers. Morris County is forming a similar task force.

One intriguing proposal that came up at a meeting of the Monmouth County panel: Having licensed mental health professionals throughout the state each adopt one family of a returning veteran and provide pro bono counseling.

Maffei says local charities, stressed by the recession, are already at their breaking point: "We don’t have any room," she says. "I don’t know anyone who does."

Doherty says it’s great that all these groups want to help, "but we need the people in Trenton to get to work" on legislation, funding and staffing that will help soldiers.

One more thing bugs Doherty. As a disabled Vietnam veteran, he bristles when someone uses the word "benefits" for vets.

"They’re entitlements," he says. "When a man or woman raises his hand, they’re saying they’ll take a bullet for this country if the mission calls for it. Many have given their lives, some have given their limbs, but all of them have sacrificed for us.

"They’re entitled to the best when they get home. But I don’t know if we’ll be ready to give it


We See The World From All Sides and Want YOU To Be Fully Informed
In fact, intentional disinformation is a disgraceful scourge in media today. So to assuage any possible errant incorrect information posted herein, we strongly encourage you to seek corroboration from other non-VT sources before forming an educated opinion.

About VT - Policies & Disclosures - Comment Policy
Due to the nature of uncensored content posted by VT's fully independent international writers, VT cannot guarantee absolute validity. All content is owned by the author exclusively. Expressed opinions are NOT necessarily the views of VT, other authors, affiliates, advertisers, sponsors, partners, or technicians. Some content may be satirical in nature. All images are the full responsibility of the article author and NOT VT.
Previous articleFrance remembers troops of southern D-Day landing
Next article31 Year Navy Veteran Brings Focus to the Year of the Military Family