With Memorial Day around the corner, it’s time to pause and give thanks to each veteran who has made the ultimate sacrifice for our country’s safety and freedom. To assist veterans returning home after facing the demons associated with war, Oakland County Veterans’ Services is one government agency here in Oakland County that provides veterans and their families benefits, advocacy and support. As its manager, Garth Wootten has seen first hand the impact of war on soldiers and their loved ones. His four years of active duty as a Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) during the Persian Gulf War prompted him to action as an advocate for veterans and their families. Wootten, 48, has been with Oakland County for 14 years, rising through the ranks from veterans counselor II to Veterans’ Services Division manager. He has been division manager since 2009. As of Saturday, June 4, Wootten will be elevated to president of the Michigan Association of County Veterans Counselors, with counselors from 68 counties in Michigan.
SCN: Give us a glimpse of what Oakland County Veterans’ Services does for our men and women in uniform.
GW:Oakland County Veterans’ Services is supported by Oakland County tax dollars. We are county employees. Our job is to ensure the veterans of Oakland County and their dependents get all the benefits they are entitled to from the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs). There are some state and county benefits that we also assist them in obtaining. We have accredited veterans counselors, accredited by the VA as being competent to represent claimants in front of the VA for applications for benefits. What they do is, when a veteran or dependent will come into our office and will want to know what they are entitled to or have general questions or specific benefits, we would interview them and ask relevant questions, fill out any forms necessary to apply for that particular benefit and get any supporting documentation that’s required. Then follow that claim through until it’s completion even if it has to go into an appeal status.
SCN: How many veterans are there currently in Oakland County?
GW: Approximately 73,000 veterans in Oakland County in 2010.
SCN: What benefits do these veterans typically receive and how much red tape is involved in assisting survivors or dependents in filing claims or appealing adverse decisions?
GW: There’s a lot of different benefits and programs that go through the VA and all of them have different eligibility criteria. Some of the most common ones are disability compensation, which is available if a veteran is injured or has an illness incurred during service. Sometimes there’s what we call presumptive conditions — where if they served in Vietnam and come down with a certain medical condition later, that could be considered. Those cases typically could involve a lot of back and forth between the VA and the claimants. We have to make sure they understand how the process works to get the evidence necessary to present in a manner to the VA to ensure the claim is successful. Some of the common benefits are medical care through the VA. There are VA medical centers in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and an outpatient clinic in Pontiac.
We assist individuals in enrolling for health care through those facilities and assist them if they run into difficulties with their health care. There is also a pension program, which is an income-based benefit, which we can assist veterans and their dependents when applying for — It’s intended for low-income individuals who are unable to work. Some of the less common ones that we assist with are home loans and education benefits for our younger veterans.
SCN: Are readjustment problems a continuous challenge for veterans coming home from combat?
GW: Yes, obviously individuals who have engaged in combat have experienced, seen, or done things that we can’t imagine. To be in constant danger of of death or serious bodily injury, to see your comrades injured or in some cases killed, to engage the enemy — it’s obviously an extremely stressful situation. A lot of times individuals have difficulties dealing with what they’ve experienced when they come back from overseas, so it is a constant challenge. There are resources available to them. The veterans center in Pontiac, which focuses on readjustment counseling, tries to make sure these individuals with trauma get the support and treatment that they need.
SCN: What about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — how common is this and what is your organization doing to help?
GW: It is a fairly common disability that combat veterans suffer from. We ensure that if they have some type of disability due to their PTSD, we would assist them in applying for disability compensation from the VA that could entitle them to monthly payments. We would also make referrals and enroll them for VA health care so they can treatment for PTSD issues. We make referrals to the vet center in Pontiac for readjustment counseling for PTSD issues.
Also, there are other issues involved. They may need assistance with substance abuse issues. If they’re self-medicating or something like that, we can make sure they get into the VA programs that would assist them in those areas. Sometimes they may be eligible for vocational rehabilitation, a program that’s an education program, where they could go to school or a vocational facility to learn a trade which can assist them in adjusting.
SCN: Intervention is necessary when a veteran is unwilling or unable to take the necessary action that is required to confront psychological, medical or readjustment problems that are a cause of active duty and are negatively and progressively affecting the veteran and/or family. What are some ways a loved one can go about coordinating an intervention?
GW: Probably the areas we’ve seen most effective are at the vet centers that provide family counseling in, what I won’t say is a less threatening atmosphere, but many are afraid to go to a VA hospital. They’ve heard a lot of negative stories, so the vet centers were set up and are out in the community. They’re more of a casual atmosphere than a regular hospital and they also provide counseling for family members. That might be an option if they want to get into treatment. The most important thing is to talk to the veteran and identify that he made need some help here. A lot of times there’s pride involved — veterans don’t want to admit he has that issue, but sometimes a family member says, “I know you’re having difficulties. Let’s see what we can do to get help.”
SCN: According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, about one-third of the adult homeless population are combat veterans from conflicts around the world. Nearly half of the homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. How and why do veterans become homeless?
GW: There’s a lot of different reasons. A lot of it is related to difficulties with their combat experiences. A lot of them, as a result, may end up self-medicating, using alcohol or drug abuse. They may have difficulties retaining gainful employment because of some of their experiences, or maybe because of a physical disability they may have as a result of combat. So there are a lot of factors that can add to them becoming homeless.
SCN: How does your department address the ongoing challenges of homelessness within the veteran community?
GW: Our goal is to try and prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place. We do that by recognizing if they do have issues — maybe getting them into medical treatment, medical care, psychiatric treatment, psychiatric care. If they’re eligible for any benefits from the VA, whether it’s a stay on a service-connected disability which may provide them with monthly income that would enable them with ability to purchase their own housing or non-service connected pension, a paid benefit could also prevent from being homeless. We’ll try to get them those benefits. Also, if there’s a substance abuse problem, we’ll make appropriate referrals to the VA and make sure they get the treatment they need there. Also, if they are in fact homeless there are contacts with the VA that we have. There are homeless coordinators at the VA centers we can contact and hopefully they get them to be put in a VA unit in Detroit. There are other grant programs through HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and the VA will help them not to get into a homeless situation. It gives them a voucher to provide them with temporary housing. We try to prevent this situation from happening, but if it does we have resources we can refer them to. The VA has made this a priority to prevent homelessness among veterans.
SCN: In a study in 2009, Pentagon officials estimated that up to 360,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may have suffered brain injuries. Among them were 45,000 to 90,000 veterans whose symptoms persisted and warranted specialized care. Many of the wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are hit by roadside bombs. How are they medically treated and what are the long term effects?
GW: That’s an interesting question because TBI, the term they use — Traumatic Brain Injury — a lot of times there are no outward symptoms. The skull may not be crushed or they might not have a scar or anything yet. The disability they’re encountering isn’t the same as those that you would have outward physical appearance of a disability. The brain is very complex. In my opinion, they aren’t going to know the whole effects of TBI for many years. They are still looking at this with football players and boxers and seeing that a lot of times the trauma suffered to their brain leads to many difficulties later on in life. So with regards to TBIs, the VA is looking into this and trying to come up with treatment programs to help those people, whether it’s through vocational rehabilitation or actual physical rehab. But my personal opinion is we aren’t know the full effects for many years and it will take a lot of medical studies to actually determine the long-term effects of TBI. As an example, from Vietnam, Agent Orange was used, and 45 years after the fact, they’re still finding new disabilities, new conditions related to Agent Orange exposure. Sometimes it takes many years to determine the results.
SCN: You recently were given the honor being elevated to president of the Michigan Association of County Veterans Counselors. What are some of your short-term or long-term goals as president?
GW: I guess what I’d like to see is all the counties in the state provide adequate funding for county veterans counselors. I am very blessed in Oakland County that we have a well-funded office, well-supported by our county commissioners and our county executive. Unfortunately a lot of counties in the state don’t get that kind of support, so the goal would be to try and have the counties see the value of having a well-funded county veterans office.
Another goal is to make sure our counselors receive great training. We have two conferences throughout the year — one in the fall, one in the spring. They’re training conferences. We bring in outside trainers, so I want to make sure we continue to provide outstanding training so that when they get back to their offices in their respective counties, they can serve their veterans as best as possible.
SCN: With Memorial Day approaching, how should Oakland County residents observe the holiday and express their support?
GW: There’s generally ceremonies throughout the county. Most cities have some type, whether it’s a parade or ceremony at a veterans memorial. I would recommend they attend one. It doesn’t take a lot of time and it’s small way to honor those who have made tremendous sacrifices. Also at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, there’s a ceremony this Sunday, (May 29), the Sunday before Memorial Day at 1 p.m. It’s a nice ceremony and well-attended. It’s at the National Cemetery and home to over 10,000 veterans and their dependents are buried there now. It’s a beautiful location and nice ceremony. It’s a good opportunity to pay their respects to veterans. Look for local listing of ceremonies and take the time to pay your respects. That’s the best thing to do.