Santana: Why Are Orange County’s Most Vulnerable Veterans Falling Through The Cracks?

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Nearly 20 veterans a day commit suicide across America.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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Each year, from 2008 to 2017, more than 6,000 veterans died by their own hand, mostly by using firearms.

A special Veteran Administration report on the issue last year showed veterans made up as much as 20 percent of all suicides nationally, about 1.5 times the rates for non-veterans.

And one of the starkest rises in suicides is among veterans in the 18-34 age group, increasing 76 percent from 2005 to 2017.

The VA report noted that many veterans can fall through the cracks as they transition back to civilian life, a transition that finds many going from running multi-million dollar equipment and systems to being underemployed, unemployed or even physically or mentally disabled in some cases due to service-related injuries or stress.

The same report noted that as many as 40,000 veterans were counted as homeless by federal housing agencies during the most recent national point-in-time count.

When the brave men and women who serve our nation separate from military service, it doesn’t seem like there’s much follow-through to help them on their transition, much less helping them access benefits they are entitled to.

That’s where local Veteran Service Officers come in.

While the VA doesn’t fund these local offices, they act like local AAA offices for veterans, helping the most vulnerable veterans navigate through really complex paperwork in order to get them the benefits they are entitled to.

VSOs – funded by local county governments through general fund taxes – are the people who act as case officers for veterans in need, helping them identify the benefits they qualify for and are trained on how to deal with the mountain of paperwork required by the VA to process benefits.

The county government’s own veterans office website advises veterans in general to seek help from them on filling out the forms, acknowledging they can be daunting.

“It’s complicated,” said Nick Berardino, president of VALOR (Veterans Allegiance of Orange County), who regularly advocates for veterans programs to Orange County supervisors. “Most can’t navigate the system.

That’s what the Veterans Service Officer is supposed to do…Help you navigate one of the most bureaucratic, the most unresponsive and negligent government agencies.”

And remember, a lot of the people trying to navigate that system are homeless, amputees, people with severe psychotic issues, wartime battle wounds, drug use, alcoholism,” Berardino said.

Yet in Orange County, if you want to schedule an appointment with a Veterans Service Officer at the Santa Ana office on Grand Avenue, you’ll be waiting until January.

The agency has been hit hard by a rash of vacancies.

Veterans get frustrated by such delays says Bobby McDonald, a member and former chairman of the county’s Veterans Service Advisory Council.

If you ask him whether vulnerable veterans are falling through the cracks, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Because of Covid, yes. They just didn’t have the people,” McDonald said about shortages to get appointments.

According to Rene Ramirez, who heads up the County’s Community Services Agency, “the VSO has a total of 13 full-time positions, of which six positions are vacant (one County Veterans Service Officer and five Veterans Claims Representatives).

Ramirez noted, “The County Veterans Service Officer position vacated in August due to the County’s Early Retirement Incentive.  Of three Veterans Claims Representative vacancies, one employee retired, one employee accepted a promotion to a supervisory position in another County department, and one employee accepted a job opportunity in San Diego County.”

The issue blew open politically this past summer when Orange County’s entire congressional delegation – then all Democrats – sent a scathing letter to County of Orange Supervisors Chairwoman Michele Steel, a Republican who fired back her own critique of Democrats, herself in the midst of a now-successful campaign for Congress.

“We write to express our concerns about reports of long wait times and understaffing at the Orange County Veterans Service Office (OCVSO),” wrote the entire congressional delegation in the Aug. 19 letter. “It is our understanding that the OCVSO is currently staffed at below 50 percent, with only three out of seven staff positions filled. It is our further understanding that as a result of these staffing shortages, average cases are taking up to three months to receive an appointment with an accredited claims officer.”

Congressman Lou Correa wrote his own letter to Steel taking issue with the level of funding for the VSO saying it was less than in other counties.

While Steel didn’t question the delegation’s facts, she took issue with the timing of their attack.

“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that once again rather than offering any real assistance our delegation has chosen to cherry-pick an issue without the proper context and issue yet another press release,” Steel wrote on Sept. 2.

Steel noted that while VSOs are locally funded, she supported Senate legislation, The Commitment to Veterans Support and Outreach Act, saying the bill could expand outreach providing $50 million annually for five years to expand county veterans service officers.

After the exchange between the two sides, Steel asked CEO Frank Kim to add two new positions to the VSO.

“The two additional vacant Claims Representative positions are brand new positions that were added by the Board of Supervisors to the office in September 2020,” Ramirez said.

She added that “Veterans Claims Rep interviews are complete and reference checks are currently being conducted. We are currently interviewing candidates for the Veterans Service Officer position. In the interim to address immediate service needs, OCCR has developed an interim staffing strategy that filled three of the vacant positions with short term employee assignments.”

Overall, Orange County supervisors have allocated about $1.7 million a year to fund the Veterans Service Office since Fiscal Year 2017, a level of commitment that Correa called out publicly as less than surrounding counties. County officials take issue with Correa’s math saying they spend similarly to other areas.

Ramirez notes that the county faces retention challenges when it comes to VSOs because once they become trained and certified by the VA to process veterans claims, they are often hired by the agency themselves. In addition, others leave to nearby counties for better pay and benefits.

During the election, some county veterans office workers came back to the county supervisors’ public comment period, slamming the administration of the office saying bad management was driving people out.

It’s clear that the county can do a better job of crafting a vision for the VSOs as veterans advocates in addition to launching better outreach to veterans in Orange County to help them access relevant benefits.

If so many VSOs are getting hired at the VA, then OC should easily be able to create a solid farm team environment training solid administrators and advocates for veterans – with good alumni at the VA as senior adjudicators of claims.

One might not think these kinds of jobs can save lives but if you read the VA special report, it’s clear that efforts like these bring vulnerable people into a network of care.

Many veterans don’t want to ask for help.

“The majority of Veterans do not use VHA (Veterans Health Administration) services, and the majority of Veteran suicides occur among Veterans who have not recently received VHA services. VHA has an unparalleled system of recovery-oriented integrated mental health care services, ranging from early preventive services in primary care to intensive residential and inpatient services.,” concluded the report.

The report noted that the VA and other agencies can do a better job of outreach. Indeed, connecting with VSOs is a key part of the VA aim to establish local partnerships that can steer veterans to relevant services.

Mcdonald credits the county for moving to fill the VSO vacancies but worries about how long it will take to get people trained and what happens to vulnerable veterans in the interim.

For Berardino, the risks are as real as those faced on the battlefield.

“Waiting is like Russian Roulette for veterans who hope to avoid the bullet until they can get help in January.”