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Groups help veterans with range of needs

Editor’s note:

Today, the Journal concludes its annual Help for the Holidays series, spotlighting areas in which community members can reach out to neighbors in need.

For military veterans adapting to civilian life after their service, the holidays can be a bump in the road.

Between 159,000 and 170,000 of New Mexico’s residents are veterans, some successful professionals, some pursuing advanced degrees, while others are homeless looking for a place to live. (The numbers vary depending on which agency estimates the population.)

But across the state, resources are available from government agencies and nonprofit organizations to help each veteran adjust to civilian life, according to the state’s Department of Veterans Services.

“It’s an unmooring,” says Amanda Somerville, the department’s women veterans’ program manager.

Somerville, 39, who was an Air Force officer and pilot for 13 years and ended her service six years ago, found “it was such an adjustment to the civilian world. It’s a little strange to be doing your holidays away from your brothers and sisters in arms. People feel a little down or overlooked during the holidays.”

Somerville says she built structure for herself, especially during the holidays, with volunteering. She worked at the library and for Animal Humane.

“I always recommend to find somewhere to volunteer your time,” she says. “When you give to someone else, you feel personally buoyed.”

In her role as women veterans’ program manager she consults with female veterans and helps them understand and access their benefits.

And while most soldiers think they know about their benefits, things change, she says. For example, she says she didn’t know she was entitled to health services through the Veterans Administration for five years after the end of her duty, even without filing a claim.

Somerville says she’s available to the state’s more than 16,000 women veterans.

“They don’t have to be ready to file a claim (to meet with her),” she says. She can help them find resources, retreats and therapies from community nonprofits, if they don’t want to work through a government program.

“You can feel alone. Your story is unique and not unique,” she says of women veterans. “We understand your story here.”

Alonzo Maestas, director, and Brandon Lorenzo, student success specialist and VA certifying official, at the Veterans Resource Center at the University of New Mexico, say the holidays can be challenging for student veterans. Both are veterans themselves.

About 1,200 veterans worked through the center to obtain benefits in the fall semester, Maestas says. “We help our student veterans and their families. We advocate for them.”

Lorenzo explains that they access both government and community resources to “help our veterans in the transition from military life to student life. They are not traditional students. They have a life of their own they are trying to deal with.”

Green Zone Training is a program available to UNM faculty and staff to help them understand how much of an adjustment their veteran students are attempting to make.

The goal is to prevent misunderstandings that can undermine a veteran’s education. Maestas says the administration is highly supportive of the program and the center.

One young veteran spoke up in a class to explain her combat experience in Afghanistan, but as she spoke another student shouted that she was a “baby-killer,” Maestas says. The veteran came to the center and they advocated for a solution with the professor.

“It can be quite frustrating,” says Maestas, also an attorney who served in the JAG Corps. “Really we’re still going through this? Let’s don’t treat our veterans as if they are second-class citizens because they don’t agree with your politics.”

Maestas and Lorenzo agreed that the best thing others can do to smooth the transition for veterans all year long, but especially during the holidays, is to offer respect and gratitude.

“Thank them for their service,” Maestas says. “It can change someone’s day. Suicide is a veterans’ issue and this time of year can be rough.”

The center is funded through several sources, including the university and also receives donations, they said.

Retired veteran Bobby Ehrig, CEO of the Veterans Integration Center, says providing emergency, transitional and supportive housing for homeless veterans is the nonprofit’s main mission. “But we are here to meet the needs of all vets in New Mexico,” he says. “We’ve been around for the last 16 years nonstop. Ninety percent of our staff are veterans or family members, so we get it. It makes a significant difference in how we provide services.”

The VIC helps about 700 veterans and their families each year. They receive some government funding, but rely on donations from corporations, businesses and individuals, he says. The VIC’s overhead is about 10 percent. Estimates of the homeless veteran population are about 15 percent to 18 percent of total veterans, Ehrig says.

Wendy Webber, also a veteran and wife of a veteran, is the VIC’s development director, and says it’s hard to imagine a donation that wouldn’t be welcome.

“We take a house and turn it into a home. We don’t just take a homeless person and stick them in a box. We provide every single thing down to a TV, if we have one.”

The VIC has an arrangement with a motel across the street for emergency housing, Erhig says. They also have other housing, designed for longer-term.

They have a food bank distribution for veterans and their families every Friday morning at their pantry and thrift store on Dorado and Central SE.

“In the VIC we are a family and our family members are in trouble,” Webber says. “In the military you hear the expression – leave no man, or woman, in my case, behind. We want to make sure we aren’t leaving anyone out there struggling.”

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