By Jaclyn Driscoll
Delays in services for returning soldiers of Afghanistan and Iraqi wars cause stress for veterans, while evolving grassroots organizations such as Illinois Warrior to Warrior help bridge that gap.
Joe Franzese, Warrior to Warrior program coordinator and Iraq war veteran, said some veterans wait up to 500 days to get their benefits and services from a system he described as a “bureaucratic mess.”
“When returning home, at least for veterans, its kind of challenging because you’re going from a completely different culture,” Franzese said. “ A lot of it is just being reacclimated to how civilian society works.”
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for benefits increased from 11,000 in 2009, to 245,000 in 2012.
“When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started they didn’t anticipate them lasting 12 years,” Franzese said, “so they weren’t prepared for the amount of veterans coming out and need the VA services.”
Juan Perez, Warrior to Warrior veteran program assistant and Afghanistan veteran, pointed out that most problems begin in the employment realm for returning soldiers.
“A lot of people won’t just hire you for your military experience,” Franzese said. “You still need to have a degree under your belt.”
Cohesiveness was another concern of both Perez and Franzese. Warrior to Warrior aims to give veterans a sense of purpose as they integrate back into society.
“In the military you feel like you’re a part of something,” Franzese said. “Coming out you’re an individual again.”
Franzese and Perez said outreach separates their program from others. Soldiers come from a surrounding where the norm is to hold in emotions, so the difficulty lies within the initiation process. Rather than waiting for the veterans to seek assistance, Warrior to Warrior respectfully reaches out to service members in order to assist their needs in a timely manner.
Another distinction within Warrior to Warrior is the emphasis on health. A study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse screened soldiers three to four months after returning from deployment to Iraq and found that 27 percent met criteria for alcohol abuse. Social gatherings with service members are important for creating bonds within the Warrior to Warrior organization, but substance abuse is not acceptable.
“We want veterans to come home and be healthy, both physically and mentally, so we’re not stigmatized as a lot of generations have been unfortunately,” Franzese said.
Franzese said funding for Warrior to Warrior comes from private funders and donations, but primarily the McCormick Foundation. Anna LauBach of the McCormick Foundation said in September 2011, the McCormick Foundation provided a $450,000 grant for two years to pilot the project in the Chicago area. Recently, a $600,000 grant was approved to expand the project throughout Illinois.
Although the program has only been in operation for shortly over a year, Warrior to Warrior has already made its mark in positively shaping the lives of veterans.
“We have serviced about 80 specific people,” Franzese said, “but we’ve done outreach to about 190 individuals or families.”