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Elisa V. Borah: Don’t forget military spouses when we think of vets’ care

After more than a decade at war since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we now face an unprecedented challenge in caring for our military service members. Too often, veterans’ spouses and families are left behind.

Because Texas has the second largest veteran population, and will have the largest number by 2019, Texas should set the standard for how we treat veterans’ families.

Exactly how do we do that? In short, we need to address the families’ employment, education and mental health care needs. We must ensure strong and effective community-based programs that are affordable and accessible.

Spouses of veterans do not receive special consideration for employment and education opportunities, yet they deserve these opportunities. Many have delayed higher education or employment, or they have been underemployed, throughout their spouses’ military service because of frequent moves and absences due to training and deployments.

Congress has acknowledged the need for services for veterans’ families but little action has been taken. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs discussed changing the model of veteran care in a 2008 congressional hearing where those who testified recommended that care should focus on the whole family. But more than seven years later, not much has changed. So, it’s left up to the states and local communities.

It’s true that Texas has set the bar high by helping veterans with higher education access. The Texas Hazlewood Act provides qualified veterans with up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at public higher education institutions in Texas. But, we fall short for veterans’ spouses and children who only receive these benefits if the veteran died in the line of duty or several other qualifying factors. What Texas should do is extend these benefits to all veterans’ immediate families, regardless of the veteran’s death or disability status.

Moreover, since July, under the Veterans Choice Act, Texas offers in-state tuition and fees to all veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bills. Given the large numbers of veterans’ families who are moving to Texas to resume their education and pursue new careers, this tuition rate should be extended to their spouses and children as well.

Another way the state could help is that the Texas Veterans Commission offers veterans much-needed employment assistance and training, including job matching and referrals. The state should offer these same supports to military spouses and family members.

Texas can also do much more to serve the mental health needs of its veterans’ families. State funding for veterans’ mental health services has increased in recent years, but Texas legislators should also advocate for additional funding for the families’ mental health care. This funding should not be a “carve out” from nonmilitary populations.

To meet increasing numbers of veterans’ and their family members’ care needs, mental health practitioners will need to retool to ensure they are skilled in practices and treatments that meet the specific needs of service members’ families. They must become adept in military cultural competency.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has begun to enhance veteran mental health programs through the creation of programs such as the Military Veteran Peer Network. It trains veterans who have recovered from similar health concerns to offer “peer support” to those in need, and to help them access mental health care from veteran-friendly clinicians. Programs such as this were developed primarily to support veterans, but they can and should expand to better assist their families. This is a good first step and communities should organize around developing appropriate resources and building networks that address the families’ needs.

A much stronger and broader response by Texas communities is needed to embrace military families for their service and sacrifice. Broad-based community support is sorely needed locally and at the state level to welcome home military spouses and family members. Many have made significant sacrifices, and need support to recover and rebuild.

We simply have to do more for military spouses and families when we think of veterans’ care.

Elisa V. Borah is a research associate in the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin. Reach her at elisa.borah@austin.utexas.edu.

View the column here. 

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