The Department of Veterans Affairs in Alaska, or VA, wants to provide Homer veterans with more health services and a larger clinic. But there’s a hang up. It’s estimated that only half of the veterans in town are signed up for insurance through the VA. Without more registered vets, it may be harder to justify additional services, and getting unregistered vets to sign up isn’t easy.
Vietnam veteran Troy Wise wears the same grey hat everyday.
“It has three pins on there,” Wise said. “It has the combat infantry badge, the Vietnam campaign medal and aviator wings.”
Wise hopes those pins catch the attention of other veterans.
“If they recognize that and start up a conversation, then I know that they understand at least what they symbolize,” Wise said. “So they got to be a vet and that’s a start. I find that still a lot of them that I meet on the street, they don’t trust the VA. They are not going to go in.”
Wise knows this type of veteran. He used to be one. The first time he went to the VA was right after he served in the 1970s.
It wasn’t just the bureaucracy of the VA that made him hesitant to register. He didn’t want to admit that he was struggling with PTSD. Wise says he didn’t want to be defined by a diagnosis, but years later it came to a head.
“I entertained thoughts of suicide,” Wise said. “Didn’t act on them; I didn’t think it was a solution. I didn’t want to miss out on my grandkids so didn’t go down that path, but it was not something I could navigate on my own.”
It took him 42 years to seek counseling through the VA, and he says it turned his life around. Now, he’s trying to convince vets with the same struggles to sign up in an effort to bring more V.A. services to Homer.
Dr. Timothy Ballard is the director of the Alaska Veteran Affairs Healthcare System. Ballard acknowledges that many vets are in the position as Wise was.
“I think there are a number of veterans that are hurting,” Ballard said. “There are 20 veterans across the country everyday who commits suicide. Fourteen of them aren’t engaging in our system or they aren’t enrolled.”
Ballard says that there’s an estimated 90,000 veterans in Alaska, the highest per capita in the country. Based on that estimate, less than half have signed up for VA services in the state. That’s a roadblock standing in the way of any attempt to expand services in Alaska.
“So it’s very difficult for my mental health care providers across the state to be able to help these veterans out if they’re not being seen, if we don’t have information on them, if they’re not actively using the system.”
Some veterans in rural Alaska intentionally isolate themselves and don’t wish to engage in a government or community programs. Some vets say others are more deserving of VA services.
Currently, the Vet Center, another branch of the VA, provides monthly mental health services in Homer while the VA itself provides healthcare services a few days per week at South Peninsula Hospital. But there isn’t enough room to serve all of the veterans thought to be in the area.
Alaska VA spokesperson Sam Hudson says the VA put in the paperwork to build a stand alone clinic in Homer. But it’s difficult to justify when less than half of the estimated veterans are registered with the VA.
“Imagine us saying, hey, we need some more things,” Hudson said. “Whether it be materials, whether it be staffing, whether it be a building, whether it be whatever. Taking for instance, my grandfather. I used to say ‘grandad, I want a motorcycle.’ He was like, ‘why are you wanting a dirt bike when you got a bicycle you don’t use?’”
The VA is working to register more people in the Homer area. They’re trying to rebrand a notorious system.
“This is is not your father’s VA,” Hudson said. “We’re much different. We’re much better. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. But are we getting better? Absolutely.”
Hudson said they are making progress in registering more people. Now, it’s almost a requirement for people who are separating from the military to sign up for care.
But for older veterans, it continues to be a challenge. Still veterans like Wise are not backing down. His dream is to have a Vet Center in Homer, a center just dedicated to serving mental health of veterans and their families.
Besides now, Wise likes to identify himself as a vet.
“I decided to quit denying that it really was a very big part of me and it did define me,” Wise said. “I didn’t have a choice and that was kind of not embracing it so much, but it’s time to be who I really am and stop denying it.”
Wise said whether or not the VA expands its offerings in Homer, he will keep his hat on in an effort to attract more vets to its services.