The State of the American Veteran: The Chicagoland Veterans Study surveyed nearly 1,300 veterans, along with follow-up focus groups with 20 veterans, in Cook, DuPage, Lake and Will counties. The study was conducted in partnership with Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work.
The study found that many service members leaving the military and returning to the Chicagoland area are not prepared for the transition home and have a range of needs that cannot be easily addressed by a single organization.
The State of the American Veteran: The Chicagoland Veterans Study, conducted by the University of Southern California (USC) School of Social Work Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR) and in partnership with Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, is an effort to provide data-driven recommendations for serving the large population of veterans residing in Chicago and the surrounding area. Service members encounter a series of needs as they transition out of the military. These include securing employment and housing, addressing physical or mental health issues and adjusting to civilian culture. The ease through which this transition is made has a profound impact on post-service well-being. In an effort to examine how Chicagoland veterans have managed this transition as well as the current state of their overall needs, the Chicagoland Veterans Study surveyed 1,294 veterans living in Cook, DuPage, Lake and Will counties. In addition, focus group interviews were conducted to supplement the findings from the survey.
The findings from the current study closely mirror those observed from similar studies conducted in Southern California in Los Angeles and Orange counties (Castro, Kintzle, & Hassan, 2014). That many findings and recommendations are similar across cities and states is critically important as it indicates a national veteran transition effort is needed and that veteran transition is not just an issue for a single city or state. Further, commonalities across cities and states indicate a broader systemic issue, which will require systemwide changes.
Many service members leaving the military and relocating to Chicagoland are not prepared for the transition, and as a result struggle during the transition processes. This lack of preparation when leaving the military was also seen among veterans in Los Angeles County. While most Chicagoland veterans leave the service without a job (65% for post-9/11 veterans), slightly lower to what was seen in the Los Angeles County Veterans Study (nearly 80% for post-9/11 veterans) and there were fewer Chicagoland veterans seeking employment compared to veterans in Los Angeles County, 13.1% versus 28%, respectively, Chicagoland veterans reported earning significantly less pay than veterans from Los Angeles County. Thus, it is important to go beyond whether a veteran is or is not employed, but to consider whether the veteran is employed in a well-paying job.
Chicagoland veterans also reported significant housing distress and food insecurity. That 19% of post-9/11 veterans reported being homeless in the past year was surprising. In addition to the housing distress of post-9/11 veterans, food insecurity was also reported by one out of every 10 post-9/11 veterans. Together, housing and food distress might serve as an indicator for the relatively low earnings reported among Chicagoland post-9/11 veterans.
Chicagoland veterans have a positive assessment of their overall health, with over three-quarters of both pre- and post-9/11 veterans reporting good to excellent health. However, post-9/11 veterans are more likely than pre-9/11 veterans to report moderate to severe health concerns. This pattern of post-9/11 veterans reporting poorer physical health concerns than pre-9/11 veterans was also seen among veterans from Los Angeles and Orange counties, indicating that this is not a unique pattern among Chicagoland veterans. Further, well over a third of Chicagoland veterans have probable PTSD and depression (40% and 36%, respectively), lower than the PTSD and depression rates seen in Los Angeles (46% and 46%, respectively). Perhaps most alarming is the percent of Chicagoland veterans who are at risk for suicide, with nearly one-third of post-9/11 veterans meeting the diagnostic criteria for suicide risk. The suicide risk for pre-9/11 veterans was half that of post-9/11 veterans. Thus, despite their overall high positive assessments of their health, post-9/11 veterans have significant mental health challenges, including high risk for suicide.
In Chicagoland there is a wide range of veteran support organizations to support veterans. However, the veteran support organizations are not organized to provide holistic support to current or returning veterans. In particular, the Chicagoland veteran support organizations lack a collaborative in which to work to create a system of veteran support. A collaborative is particularly important as most veteran support organizations, governmental and non-governmental, tend to focus on one or two veteran needs. Thus, the only means by which veterans will receive a holistic support network is through all the veteran support organizations working together.
As we have found in Los Angeles, most Chicagoland veteran support organizations tend to focus entirely on meeting acute and chronic needs of veterans, such as homelessness, immediate or severe health care issues, or acute or chronic unemployment. Very little attention is given to preventing these conditions or proactively intervening early to prevent them from becoming chronic. Clearly, if government and communities want to get ahead of many of these military transition issues, much more attention will need to be placed on better preparing the separating service member for success. A holistic approach focused on prevention and early intervention with both governmental and non-governmental agencies working together will be required. To better serve new veterans, community non-governmental veteran support agencies need to continue to press for access to and awareness of separating service members who will be joining their communities. Bringing awareness of separating service members joining local communities, and effective outreach efforts targeting family members, friends and employers of separating service members and veterans should be undertaken.
Finally, the veteran support agencies within Chicagoland need to organize and integrate their activities to meet the most pressing needs of the veteran. The results of this study can be used to improve services, create policy, and build and sustain a community coalition aimed at systematically addressing the challenges that affect the well-being of Chicagoland veterans.
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