Pioneering new connections for our disabled vets

Photo by Kate Gardiner

Despite our political differences, most Americans agree the government should take care of our disabled veterans — especially those who have suffered catastrophic injuries. Yet many would be shocked to learn how minimalgovernment support for disabled veterans truly is. 

If you’re a veteran who loses your leg below the knee due to combat wounds, witha wife and two kids, you’re not even getting $750 per month in disability. Yes, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will coveryour medical expenses, but only for that injury. Even permanently disabled vets are on their own when it comes to finding health insurance for their medical needs not related to their service — as well as those of their families.

The result is epidemic poverty for disabled vets: they are at least 50 percent likelier than their non-disabled peers to live in poverty— rates that go up the older they get.

Many organizationsoutside of government are stepping up to fill gaps — call it the private sector’s GI Bill. 

For example, at the Independence Fund — a Charlotte, NC-based non-profit dedicated to empowering our nation’s severely wounded, injured, or ill veterans — we have awarded more than 2,200 cross-country motorized wheelchairs (with powerful engines and tank treads) and provided more than 1,700 pieces of adaptive athletic equipment to vets who need themto take care of themselves and their families. 

We have also hosted more than 1,600 caregivers atrespite retreats and through follow-upservices in their communities, providing care for the caregivers in order to stave off burnout, depression and worse among those who care for our vets. 

Other organizations are also showing leadership. Comcast, for example, has recently expanded its pioneering “Internet Essentials” program to offer veterans near-free internet service plus low-cost computer equipment and training. 

Building this bridge to the new economy is central, Rob Coons of Veterans in Technology explains. “When the world is more connected than ever before, it’s easy to assume that veterans, active service members, and their families benefit from advances in technology,” he says. “But in reality, many active military and veteran families are cut off.”

For vets, this entree to the new economy can be life-changing, opening a vital door to government benefits, employment and education — an absolute necessity for the severely disabled, since VA health care providers rely so heavily on the MyHealtheVet web portal to coordinate care. In fact, the whole agency and all its health care benefits are moving quickly to the digital age.

For rural veterans struggling with the emotional wounds of combat and adapting to their disabilities, affordable internet means access to telemedicine and remote services for VA health care. For veterans struggling to re-enter the workforce, it means online training and certification programs, as well as digital help with résumés, job searching and the application process.

And for veterans struggling to build a support network of and for their caregivers, family and community, internet access is key. The Independence Fund’s caregiver support system, for example, is a network of private social media groups specifically for caregivers to share best practices, provide mutual support and escape the incredibly isolating experience caregiving can be. 

Some companies have programs to help low-income families afford broadband service. But they should be expanded to include veterans. Others should incorporate these practices and find other ways to help connect our vets. For instance, we need companies to provide free website hosting for veterans’ small businesses and free access to public Wi-Fi hotspots. If the private sector can open their hotspots in a crisis as was recently done during Hurricane Florence, why shouldn’t low-income veterans, who are in crisis everyday, have permanent access to this resource to help them get back on their feet?

Private sector initiatives like “Internet Essentials” are critical but should only be the tip of the iceberg. More companies and industries should get on the field and find their own ways to help. 

Austin is home to nearly 40,000 veterans, while the state of Texas has the second-largest veteran population in the United States.  With 15 active duty military installations in the state and the Army announcing in July that Austin will host the Army Futures Command headquarters, the number of military members, families and veterans in the state of Texas will only grow. Texas should welcome this initiative by Comcast to help its veterans and support it where it can.

Through greater community and business engagement, our society can help partially repay the debt owed disabled veterans — a debt our government refuses to pay.

Bob Carey

Chief Advocacy Officer, Independence Fund