For many veterans, support begins and ends with their friends, family and community. But as Wyoming struggles through a financial crisis, funding for veteran support networks is beginning to dwindle.
“When the wars end, so does the funding in most instances,” said Marty Martinez, a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer and senior project coordinator for the University of Wyoming Student Veterans Services Center. “I’ve watched those ebbs and flows for over 20 years.”
With about 600 people using the G.I. Bill during the spring 2017 semester, Martinez said veteran enrollment has remained steady since the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“People might think now the war’s over, the need for support is over, too,” he said. “But the opposite is true.”
With a renovation on the third floor of the Wyoming Union underway, Martinez said plans are in motion to move the veterans services center from its 660-square-foot facility to a 2,100-square-foot facility.
He said the new location would be impossible without generous donations from a few people, but the support it received didn’t reach levels he’d seen previously.
“I began alerting the directors about 3-4 years ago,” Martinez said. “This isn’t going to get easier.”
With a veteran population of nearly 51,000, the U.S. Census Bureau reports veterans account for about 9 percent of the state’s population.
And despite massive troop withdrawals from the Middle East, the Department of Defense’s Defense Manpower Data Center reported in December nearly 13,000 American military personnel were currently deployed in Afghanistan and about 7,500 were deployed in Iraq. In total, the U.S. has about 276,000 military personnel deployed overseas, data center documents state.
“A lot of people say, ‘Is America at war?’ — No, it’s at the mall,” said Larry Barttelbort, a retired U.S. Army colonel and director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission. “They just don’t realize we have so many people still overseas.”
Combat veteran tuition program
During the 2016 Legislative Budget Session, a tuition program for combat veterans wound up on the chopping block but managed to narrowly escape defunding after Gov. Matt Mead extended the program’s monetary assistance.
Approved by the Legislature in 2006, the Overseas Combat Veteran Tuition Program provides qualified veterans 10 free semesters at Wyoming’s community colleges or UW.
The extension was only a stopgap measure, however, and the program’s fate again hangs in the balance.
“(The program) may be trimmed some, but I think we need to take the long view on it,” Mead said. “In providing them tuition assistance, you’re not only providing a substantive thanks to the veteran, you’re also creating a workforce that is amongst the best.”
Mead said the program was a promise Wyoming made to its veterans and backing out could diminish the number of future veterans the state could count on volunteering.
“We made a commitment to these people,” he said. “It may be too generous, but we made a deal.”
Not only do programs like free tuition for veterans build trust in younger generations the country might one day need to defend its borders, but Mead said veterans could help the state find a way out of its financial crisis.
“One of the keys to diversifying our economy is we need a well-educated workforce that has a great work ethic,” he said. “Veterans play well into that — those are going to be some of the best innovators in Wyoming, those are going to be some of the best employees in Wyoming.”
The program also helps Wyoming maintain ratings as one of the best states for veteran benefits, Mead said.
“That was probably the most generous program in the nation for a state to provide its veterans,” Barttelbort said. “I don’t think you’ll see it go away completely.”
The program is scheduled for review Tuesday by the Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs Joint Interim Committee.
Bird’s eye view
Wyoming might be experiencing a dip in veteran support, but the recent revenue reductions barely register on a 50-year timeline.
When former U.S. Marine Corps Capt. John Hursh returned from active duty, he said support for veterans was nearly non-existent.
“I came out of the Vietnam era,” Hursh said. “When you came back home, you weren’t very well accepted.”
While many people spat on returning veterans, protested the war and hurled insults such as “baby killer” at anyone wearing a uniform, Vietnam veterans were forced to face uphill battles such as Agent Orange and shell shock, a term used to describe post-traumatic stress, on their own, he said.
But as wars continued to pop up around the world, the public perception of service members improved.
“It changed in the Gulf wars,” Hursh said. “All of the sudden, being a soldier was an honorable profession again.”
As organizations like Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Hunting with Heroes and Warriors Afield Legacy Foundation sprouted around the state, Hursh said veterans also started receiving better care at Department of Veteran Affairs facilities.
“The (post-traumatic stress disorder) center in Sheridan is one of the best in the country,” Hursh said. “We didn’t have anything like that. There’s a lot more support out there than there was 40-50 years ago.”
Barttelbort said the biggest changes took effect after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think a good way to contrast it is pre-9/11 when people left the military, the care they received was largely dependent on the military installation they (processed out of),” he said.
A service member might not be introduced to veteran service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or Disabled American Veterans, and little to no information might be provided about enrolling at the VA, he said.
Nowadays, Barttelbort said the veterans commission regularly hosts yellow ribbon events to connect National Guard members and reservists with resources throughout the deployment cycle as well as organizing career and benefit fairs for veterans.
“The saying these days is we enlist a single person and retain the family,” he said.
State of support
“Support our troops” bumper stickers and “welcome home” marquees might be less visible now, but Wyoming Veterans Commission Veteran Service Officer Linda Algier said public support hasn’t diminished — funding has.
“The problem in the state is we’re running out of money,” said Algier, a retired U.S. Army major. “We’re getting hit like everyone else.”
Previously, the state provided matching funds for projects such as memorial statues, but she said financial support for nonessential services disappeared with the energy industry.
“This year at the women’s (Promoting Our Women Warriors of Wyoming event), we didn’t have any money to send like we normally do, because there just is none,” Algier said. “We used to have money to support UW games, but that’s gone, too.”
Even with less revenue, the state pinched pennies to hire more veteran service officers, she said.
“In the last 10 years, the commission really has been built up,” Algier said. “We started with about three people working there, and we’re up to about 12 or 13.”
Barttelbort said veteran service organizations remain strong and “the most powerful voices in Washington, D.C.,” but state programs were starting to feel the pinch.
“Support is waning,” he said. “But that is due to a little fatigue on behalf of the service members and the public. The farther we get away from 9/11, the harder it is for veterans’ issues to receive the attention they need.”
Algier said she wasn’t sure if it would take another war to return funding for veterans’ programs to their previous state, but if people could be counted on for something, it’s a propensity for war.
“It looks like things are cooling off,” she said. “But there’s going to be another skirmish someplace.”
‘Lessons of the past’
Since 1868, Americans have visited graves across the country in honor of those who died serving in the armed forces — a remembrance Mead said is paramount to the identity of this nation.
“It is incumbent on us as a state and a nation to never take for granted that which some easily take for granted,” the governor said. “If you don’t do a good job taking care of our vets, respecting our vets and honoring our vets, we’re not going to have many new vets.”
Mead said his appreciation for military service began with his father, who flew in a bomber during the Korean War.
“Some of the most outstanding people I’ve met raised their right hand and vowed to protect our country against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” he said. “It has been one of the greatest privileges of this job to get involved with veterans.”
No matter the state of financial support for veteran organizations, Hursh said community support was among the most valuable returns veterans could receive for their service.
“It used to be you went to the park, and you didn’t want to wear your Marine Corps or American Legion ball cap,” he said. “Now, it’s something different. It’s a point of pride.”
Around the U.S., Algier said people show their support in different ways, and while that might be less flamboyant in Wyoming, it’s no less heartfelt.
“Wyoming is not full of a bunch of flag wavers,” she said. “But we’re very patriotic, and we support our vets.”
Despite recent hiccups in funding, Mead said support for veterans in Wyoming is still at a historical high point. But even in its current state, he said veterans can fall through the gaps when trust and relationships are not maintained.
“While we’re in a good place now, we must remain diligent,” Mead said. “I think we’ve come a long ways, but if we don’t remember history, we’re destined to relive the lessons of our past.”