PITTSFIELD -- More than 30 agencies and organizations -- including health and human services, employers and military outreach programs -- were at the ready to reach out to service men and women Friday at the Crowne Plaza.
"We want to ensure our veterans get the benefits they deserve and are entitled to," said Brenda Carpenter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Berkshire County, who emceed the daylong Berkshire County Veterans Expo.
Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, who was a guest speaker, said when World War II veterans returned home, they found jobs, a GI Bill of Rights and a friendly welcome.
"The country was ready for them," Bianchi told the morning session audience of more than 100 people. "Over the years, the country lost its focus and lost the sense of value of returning veterans."
North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright agreed. "As I've learned over the years, veterans benefits are not just line items on our budgets. They're truly a commitment to people who've committed so much to this country."
Today, veterans service providers, municipal and community-based organizations must work to better understand and adapt with the changing demographics of both returning troops and aging veterans.
A panel presentation on these matters was held at the expo with state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, and state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, William "Smitty" Pignatelli and Paul Mark. Rep. Gailanne Cariddi was unable to attend due to another speaking engagement.
Downing said their primary responsibility is "making sure there aren't barriers in front of veterans," in terms of getting federal benefits, navigating continuing education systems, and getting workforce training and credentials.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the October 2013 unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is 10 percent, while the general unemployment rate in the United States is 7.3 percent.
PHOTO GALLERY | Veterans and vendors attend Veteran's Expo in Pittsfield
During a veterans program held at Berkshire Community College on Thursday, Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Services Coleman Nee highlighted the fact that there are more female, African-American, Hispanic and Latino troops in the ranks of returning vets.
Of the approximately 370,000 veterans living in Massachusetts, 165,000 are Vietnam War-era vets, while 45,000 are post-9/11 vets who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nee said recently returning vets have often faced multiple and lengthy deployments, meaning more endurance of physical and mental feats and stresses. Though there are services and programs available to help and veterans in need, Nee said there is still a disconnect.
"We're adapting systems to meet the needs of all veterans. What we don't do a very good job with is making it an easy system to navigate," Nee said.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the national backlog of compensation claims for benefits totals 393,788 -- down approximately 35 percent since March, but still higher than anyone would like to see.
There are 3.9 million veterans of all eras nationwide who are currently receiving disability benefits from the VA.
Roger Johnson, director of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, was at Friday's expo in Pittsfield. He said VA health care system in his region and its 750 employees serve approximately 25,000 veterans a year.
He said Iraq and Afghanistan vets most commonly are in need of mental health services to help with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression; orthopedic care from constantly carrying 60-pound packs and other kinds of heavy equipment; and pulmonary care for dust and sand exposure.
Johnson said over the past five years, the number of mental health care professionals on staff has increased about 50 percent, to better serve veterans' needs.
Pignatelli said there are many veterans "coming home quietly" who are "mentally wounded" and needing to heal their "inward scars."
Another change is due to the fact there are more returning female veterans; there are currently 26,818 female vets living in Massachusetts. Johnson said though the region's VA doesn't offer its own OB/GYN services, it's currently paying for the care of 15 pregnant vets.
"That's certainly not the VA I started with," said Johnson. "We've always been diverse, but the percentages are changing."
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