Veterans Taking Care of Their Own

Veterans Day Flags at Mt. Pisgah Cemetary

It’s Monday morning at the Wyoming Workforce Service Center in southern Gillette. The governmental office provides a range of labor-related services from workers’ compensation to unemployment insurance to veterans’ benefits.

A man comes in and explains to a state employee behind the desk that a card he is using to access some benefits isn’t working properly. He keeps getting an error message, he tells her.

“It does that, sir,” the woman politely replies. “You have to put in the number three times to get it to work.”

Visibly frustrated but happy to have a solution to his problem, the man thanks her and hurries out the door to try again.

It’s a scene familiar to just about anyone who has utilized the services of the Post Office, Department of Motor Vehicles, or Social Security office. Government services tend to be slower and sometimes frustrating to navigate.

Across the state are people who work for the State of Wyoming and the federal government providing services to veterans. Veterans who need these services say these government employees truly care about our veterans.

However, the bloated bureaucracy they work in can create a range of obstacles. But there are some veterans who are working hard to get their fellow service men and women the help they desperately need.

Brian Yeager, veterans service officer for northeast Wyoming, tries to put veterans in touch with a variety of services that are sometimes difficult to access.

Service officers

Housed in this same building of the Wyoming Workforce Service center is the office of Brian Yeager, veterans service officer.

It’s not quite 10 a.m. on this Monday morning, but Yeager already has 72 voicemails, over 30 emails, and he’s already talked to five vets. On any given day, he’ll get 8 to 15 voicemails per hour.

“We’re worn out, but we’re doing the best we can,” Yeager said.

Yeager served in the Marines from 1998 to 2002. He did a tour in Afghanistan, where he says he worked in “human intelligence.”

He speaks with a directness—straight and to the point—that you often see in Marines. Whatever their objective, they’re going right to it.

“There is honor in service to a greater cause than one’s self,” he said proudly of his military service, and he extends this attitude to the job he does every day.

The state of Wyoming employs a total of seven service officers, and Yeager serves the veterans in the counties of Campbell, Crook, and Weston. According to estimates by the Veterans Administration, there were 4,117 veterans in those three counties as of 2017.

Yeager questions the accuracy of that number. The Veterans’ Administration (VA) estimated Crook County, for example, had 570 veterans in 2017.

“I’ve personally helped 1,200 from Crook, at least,” Yeager said.

Steve Kravitsky, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, agrees the numbers are questionable.

In the entire state, the VA estimated there were 47,220 veterans in 2017. Other states have hired consultants to try to get an accurate count of their veterans. In Utah, state contractors estimated the numbers there were 15 percent higher than the VA estimates.

Whatever the actual numbers of veterans in the state, Wyoming’s seven veteran service officers are serving a lot of people who have a lot of benefits this country owes them. Both Kravitsky and Yeager said they need more people. Seven people covering the entire state just isn’t enough.

“Veterans in Wyoming deserve a little better shake than that,” Yeager believes.

In many states, there’s one or more veteran service officers in every county. That’s the case in North Dakota, for example, where state law requires the counties to provide a service officer and pay for it themselves.

Hard transition

No matter how well we take care of our veterans, if they don’t know what services are available or how to access them, no amount of care is going to do them much good. That’s where the service officers come into play.

Yeager not only has a large area to cover, it’s an area, he said, with some of the highest veterans’ claims in the state. He attributes this to the fact that military service is much more popular for young people from rural places.

“When a kid turns 18, there are three choices: go to college, go to work, or go into the military,” Yeager explained.

Many country kids choose the military. Then, when they’re discharged, they return home, where there are jobs and their families. That’s a lot of veterans coming home to Wyoming where they must make the transition back into civilian life.

Nick Andrews, president of the Gillette College Veterans Association, is a veteran who didn’t immediately move back to Wyoming. He tried to make it work in the state of Washington, where his service ended, but he encountered too many problems.

He was in the U.S. Navy for 11-and-a-half years. He went to Pensacola, Florida, home of the Blue Angels, where he had technical training to become an aviation structural mechanic. He served three tours on aircraft carriers, including the USS Constellation and USS Abraham Lincoln.

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“It’s difficult,” he said of his transition from the military back into civilian life. “Going from the active duty side to the civilian side was a complete different ballgame…. It’s a ‘sink or swim’ type of environment in the civilian world. I did sink.”

Loren Groves, veterans student advisor for Gillette College, stands next to a photo in his office of Johnston Island, where he spent a year of his 20 years in the Army.

After things weren’t working out for him in Washington, he came back to Gillette, where he grew up, and started going to school. That’s where he met Loren Groves, veterans’ student advisor with Gillette College, and started to find his path to a stable civilian life.

“Any problems I have, anything I need, he’s the first person I go to,” Andrews said.

Like Yeager, Groves tries to connect veterans with the services they need to be successful in school, at home, or in whatever they’re trying to do.

Groves served 20 years in the U.S. Army, all over the country. He had a couple company commands and did a combat tour in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his office is a photograph of a small airport on a strip of white beach sands surrounded by blue water. It’s a picture of Johnston Island, an atoll in the middle of the South Pacific, where he spent a year of his service.

He served seven years as an enlisted member before earning his bachelor’s degree and serving another 13 years as an officer.

“One of the biggest problems is not knowing who to talk to or what to do,” Groves said of the veterans he helps at the college. He also serves some veteran dependents who have access to benefits.

For those coming out of the service, they can sometimes get lost.

“They’re used to people telling [them] what to do, who to talk to, and what forms to fill out….Now it’s on you to get stuff done,” he explained.

Much of what he and Andrews do is help veterans become successful with their studies. That might mean helping them complete enrollment applications, applying for financial assistance, learning to take notes, or setting them up with tutors if they’re struggling with a subject. They also have a cabinet full of electronic equipment they can lend out in their veterans-dedicated office at the Pronghorn Center.

Medical care

Of course, helping veterans focus on their studies sometimes means addressing problems outside of school. When Groves is unsure where to get a veteran the help he or she needs, he sends them over to Yeager. Occasionally, Yeager also gets referrals from the VA directly, which is a whole other beast.

“The VA is a 12-arm monster, and every arm doesn’t know what the other is doing,” Yeager said of the institution itself.

It’s a different story as far as its staff. There are the accounts of the veteran spending several hours in a waiting room, only to be told to come back the next day. But that’s just part of the story.

John Matejov, who lives in Story, Wyoming, is a retired Marine. He’s decades from when he retired from the military and has long transitioned back into civilian life. But, like many older veterans, he regularly utilizes the medical services of the VA.

He said everyone he’s dealt with in the system has a sincere desire to help veterans, yet, like any bloated federal entity, staff swims through red tape to achieve their mission.

“It sure is a big bureaucracy, and it has some links broken,” Matejov said.

At one point, he feared he was suffering the early stages of dementia. He went to the VA to see what diagnosis services they had, and he said they were extremely helpful.

“They were bending over backwards for me,” he recalled.

Fortunately, the tests came back negative, and he’s not suffering from dementia. Having medical professionals help him eased the worry over the matter.

“The bottom line is, for 27 years, the VA has been very good to me.”

Medical services are not just for the older veterans. Right now, America is engaged in one of the longest wars in its entire history, in Afghanistan. If you include the period of America’s support of the French in Vietnam, that was a few months longer, but the War in Afghanistan will surpass it this year.

“There are generations of combat veterans, and some are getting into their 40s,” Yeager, the veterans service officer, said.

Michael Summers, Gillette College student, said his transition to civilian life went smoothly. Though, to find all the medical services he needs, he sometimes has to travel long distances.

Michael Summers is a Marine who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He left the military in January 2017 and is now a full-time student at Gillette College. He said the transition into civilian life was pretty seamless for him personally.

He had done a lot of the groundwork getting his medical paperwork done before he left the service, and he knew exactly what he wanted to study in school. He said Groves, the veterans’ student advisor, helped with a few details.

“He filled in the blanks,” Summers said.

There are some areas where, even when a veteran knows how to get help, it’s hard to come by.

“They have zero mental health services here in Gillette,” Summers said.

He’s sought counselling through the VA in Sheridan, and he conducts the sessions over the phone. It’s either that or drive a couple hours to Sheridan to see the doctor in person. For a full-time student, who also works part-time at the college and spends 12 hours a day there, that’s just not possible.

Therapy over the phone is “impersonal, but sufficient,” Summers remarked.

Groves said he’s seen plenty of veterans with post traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses.

He said sometimes a veteran who faces mental illness may not want to get help. There is an unfortunate stigma attached to mental illness, in general. Combat veterans survive the inconceivable stress of battle, and then find it’s hard for people who have never gone through it to really understand how it lingers long after they come home.

“I face some of those challenges myself, being a two-time combat veteran,” Groves admitted.

Yeager pointed out how medical technology has advanced so much that the survival rate of casualties in battle has increased and more Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors come home with disabilities. It’s good they come home, but the demand for veteran medical services is increasing.

While mental health services are very scarce, other medical needs are only slightly better in Gillette. Summers has had travel to Sheridan for his medical needs, and has had to go as far away as Colorado Springs, depending on the situation.

He’s utilized some services from the VA clinic here in Gillette, but it has a very small staff and limited capabilities. Yeager said, they do as much as they can with what they have.

“I think they’re phenomenal people,” he said.

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Yeager stated, the VA has a program that allows veterans to get help at Campbell County Health, which the VA then pays for. Unfortunately, doctors are sometimes wary about using the program. There’s a lot of red tape, and if a form doesn’t get filled out right, the VA won’t pay. Then, the doctor isn’t allowed to use the program anymore. When that happens, it’s not the doctor that pays. It’s the veteran.

Yeager mentioned a case where a doctor didn’t bill the VA correctly for a $60,000 medical procedure. The VA only paid $48,000, and the rest was charged to the veteran.

“There’s too many working parts,” Yeager said.

Patriotic

While the services provided are not perfect, especially when it comes to complexities and expense of medical care, Rep. Tyler Lindholm said Wyoming always ranks high on surveys of care for vets. He said there’s a priority placed on their care.

Navy veteran Tyler Lindholm now represents Crook and Weston counties in the Wyoming Legislature.

“Wyoming is a pretty patriotic place,” he said.

Lindholm, who grew up on his family’s ranch in Sundance, served in the Navy from 2001 to 2006. He worked on electronics in helicopters. He said, despite the landlocked life of the West, there’s a lot of people here who get drawn into the Navy. He said, for him, there’s something comforting about the sea.

“I spent a lot of time looking at those blue waves,” he said with a laugh.

He met his wife in the Navy and the couple returned to Lindholm’s family ranch in Sundance after they left the service.

He said there can sometimes be opposition to bills that would provide or expand veteran services, but that’s because not every bill is a good one. He’s even opposed some he just didn’t think were best for veterans and the state. However, there’s a sincere desire among the legislators to make sure the state takes care of its veterans.

“The State of Wyoming takes it very seriously,” he assured.

The state’s role in serving veterans is important. Where the federal government doesn’t provide a service, the State of Wyoming is expected to fill in the gaps.

This coming legislative session, Wyoming representatives and senators will consider funding for the next phases of a skilled nursing facility for veterans. These facilities provide round-the-clock care for seniors, and Wyoming is the only state in the country without a veterans’ facility.

The state has narrowed its location down to either Sheridan, Buffalo, or Casper. The House and Senate will select one and set aside appropriations for a third phase of a study, before the project moves forward with construction. Kravitsky, with the Veterans’ Commission, said legislative support should be enough to make sure the facility comes to fruition.

He points to the ongoing support from the Joint Interim Transportation, Highways, and Military Affairs Committee, as well as Governor Matt Mead making the issue a point in his State of the State address to the legislature at the start of the last session.

“I think we do a really good job in Wyoming,” Kravitsky said.

He said in 2017, the state provided $174 million in compensation and pension benefits to veterans.

He also said the VA is getting better. With one of the largest budgets in the federal government, it’s not surprising that the entity isn’t always the smoothest-running operation.

“It’s a constant evolution of learning.”

Helping each other

The Student Veterans Association at Gillette College is staffed by people with years of experience in the military. Lindholm and his wife served in the Navy. Yeager is a true Marine. And Kravitsky was in the Air Force for 32 years, serving part of that as a Wing Commander at FE Warren Air Force Base, in Cheyenne.

It’s a lot of veterans helping veterans.

“I think we do a pretty good job taking care of ourselves,” Summers, the Gillette College student, said.

Of course, every citizen has a duty to make sure veterans are properly taken care of, but veterans are trained to be self-sufficient and get the job done. Having someone to get them in touch with and navigate through existing services, these veterans say, is absolutely vital.

“When one door opens, so does five others. As long as I can give them that first door, then they’re on their way. That was a door that wasn’t open for me back in Washington,” Andrews said.

Yeager’s efforts are ongoing, a single point-of-contact in a very large area with an indeterminate number of veterans who need services. And, while the job seems impossible, he takes pride in his determination.

“If they walk in my door, we’re going to explore every possible avenue,” Yeager said. And he means it.

 

Originally from New Mexico, Killough began his career writing freelance for a weekly magazine in Albuquerque while completing his undergraduate degree. In addition to reporting on uranium mining in western New Mexico, he spent three years reporting in western North Dakota during the height of the oil boom. He can be reached at kevin@county17.com or 701-641-6603.