Report Highlights Issues Facing Veterans

October 29, 2020

Carbondale, IL – The Southern Illinois University System President’s Office released recommendations from its first Veteran’s Summit held last fall in Mt. Vernon. The two-day gathering of education, non-profit, policy and government leaders, sponsored by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, addressed challenges facing veterans including access to healthcare, educational opportunities and legal assistance in order to create a strategic blueprint to improve veteran’s services in central and southern Illinois.

“The summit was very successful because it was able to shine more light on veterans in central and southern Illinois and the specific sets of needs we can support as we acknowledge their service to our nation,” said Dan Mahony, President of the SIU System.

The report, prepared by the Department of Population Science and Policy at the SIU School of Medicine, highlights challenges facing Illinois veterans and proposes innovative ideas suggested by summit participants including:

  • Upgrading rural broadband expansion and utilizing technology to improve access to educational programs as well as telehealth and tele-mental health services.

“We know many veterans who live in rural areas are not receiving treatment, which is why expanding telehealth is a game changer. I am pleased to see this provision included in the report because SIU has been a leader in providing telehealth services during the pandemic. And, with our system-wide rural health care focus, we are committed to continuing this expansion, post-pandemic as well,” said Dean of the SIU School of Medicine, Jerry Kruse, MD, MSPH.

  • Improving access to higher education and vocational training opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in veterans stood at 8.6 percent for June 2020, with peak unemployment for veterans being 11.7 percent in April 2020.

“Our goal system-wide is to guide veterans through the steps they need to fully utilize their educational benefits. A vital component we discussed at the summit is ensuring veterans know about their benefits and the on-campus resources available to them. We increase educational outcomes and job placement for veterans when we layer in services to help them be more successful,” said Kevin Wathen, summit participant and Director of Military and Veteran Services at SIU Edwardsville.

  • Hiring veterans as community health workers focusing on veteran health care needs.

“Our successful Community Health Worker (CHW) Program has allowed SIU Medicine to create health care opportunities in targeted neighborhoods by bringing specially-trained workers who zero-in on the specific needs of a population. Training for community health workers (CHWs) is one of the most in-demand modules offered at SIU School of Medicine and could be easily modified to not only include the special needs of veterans, but also train veterans as CHWs, said Dr. Tracey Smith, summit participant and former Director of Community Initiatives and Complex Care at the SIU School of Medicine.

  • Increasing funding for veterans’ treatment courts to provide greater access and coordination of available services for veterans.

Summit attendees noted that many veterans leave military service feeling disconnected from their community and because of this, they sometimes make bad choices. The goal of Veteran’s Courts is to help participants by providing mental health services, behavioral therapy as well as job training. But for these programs to be successful, financial resources are needed for supportive services, including issues like access to transportation.

There have already been tangible outcomes from the summit thanks to a partnership formed between participants from SIU’s School of Medicine and School of Law which lead to the creation of the VetLAMP (Veterans Legal and Medical Partnership) in November, 2019. The program builds on the work of the Law School’s Veterans Legal Assistance Program providing free assistance to veterans whose claims for a service-connected disability have been denied by incorporating the medical expertise of School of Medicine faculty and students who now assist in preparing appeals.

“This first outcome from the summit is a great indicator of the impact we as a university system can have on veterans not just in central and southern Illinois, but across Illinois,” said Martin Parsons, summit participant and a clinical assistant professor at the SIU School of Law and 26-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and Illinois Army National Guard.

“Thanks to the funding support of the McCormick Foundation, the collaborative spirit of our participants and the hard work of faculty and staff across the Southern Illinois University System, we laid a solid foundation to further support veterans in central and southern Illinois,” said President Mahony. “Our goal now is to work with our government partners to see these ideas turned into policy and practice.”