A salute to Veterans Day
Got the Back of Veterans
By Jonathan Gramling

       For most of his adult life, Ken Black, the secretary of the Wis. Dept. of Veterans Affairs,
was on active duty serving in the U.S. Army around the world including with the 82nd
Airborne Division in Germany and Korea. As a member of the military, he learned how
important it was to watch out for his fellow soldiers. Now as secretary of veterans affairs, he
feels it is his duty to watch out for veterans as they return from combat in Iraq and
Afghanistan.
       “The veterans of our communities are a cherished group of individuals whom we don’t
cherish as well as we should,” Black said during an interview with The Hues. “From my
perspective, I think a lot of Americans take things for granted, what we have here today has
been won a lot on veterans’ backs. We tend to forget that. We just tend to live our lives and
think that this is the way things are supposed to be. But it isn’t necessarily so. It could
change. Let’s just put it that way. The veterans community is a very special community to
me. I think a lot of people have gotten away from that. One of the things I want to make sure
that I do is make sure everyone understands how important the veterans community is and
making sure that we honor them and we provide them with the services and benefits they
deserve and earned and we promised them.”
     
Ken Black, Secretary for the Wis.
Department for Veterans Affairs, is
concerned about the resources being
provided for Iraq and Afghanistan
veterans.
       While the U.S. Department of Defense is responsible for soldiers while they are in the military, it is veterans affairs that is
responsible for providing veterans that they were promised when putting their lives on the line. As the scandals at Walter Reed Hospital
have shown in recent years on the federal level, veterans and their unique problems and issues are oftentimes placed on the back
burner.
       The last time that the U.S. military experienced prolonged warfare was the Vietnam War, after which many veterans experienced
homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues as they tried to make the transition back to civilian life. Black is seeing similar
increases in problems as the U.S. military enters its 10th year of being engaged in active warfare.
       
"There is an increase in suicides as a result of a number of things that are occurring within the military arena,” Black said. “First of
all, we’ve got the National Guard being called up and going off to fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. I think that is probably the first
time in a long, long time that the National Guard — the National Guard is the militia to the states, so they take care of state catastrophes —
has gone to war for the federal government. We have a new group of individuals who are going to war from each state and they are doing
multiple tours, 2-4 tours. Then when they come off of active duty, they are going back to their states and the system does not have a
system in place designed to take care of them because it wasn’t there before and never has been. So we have to design a new system to
take care of a group of people who generally only took care of disasters within their state.”
       And while they have experienced extreme stress for prolonged periods of time, unlike the regular military, they do not come back to
a base where they stay with services and others who have gone through the same experience close at hand.
       “Here in the different states, they come back to a Truax and they go all over their state,” Black said. “So you have Mary coming back
and going to Racine and her other friend Terri is going up to Green Bay and Jack is down in LaCrosse and they may meet once per year to
converse about what has occurred. So there is no system in place to take care of them and to make sure they get the health care that
they need to transition to be made healthy and whole and then reintegrate back into society so they can become contributing members.
Some of them are coming back and losing their jobs because they’ve been gone for a year, came back for five months and then were
gone for another year. That presents a problem for this state. I don’t even think that the state recognizes the problem that we are going to
encounter if we do not deal with some of the problems associated with the National Guard forces that are going and doing 3-4 tours and
then coming back and going out into our community.”
       And one of the biggest obstacles returning National Guard veterans may be facing is unemployment in an economy that is still
experience the effects of the Great Depression. “We have an economy where we have 9-10 percent unemployment, depending on what
group you are with,” Black said. “And some groups are at 17 percent. But you have this unemployment that is occurring so when they do
come back, think of it as they are coming back, their job is probably not there — it may be or it may not be — but those who don’t have a
job coming back get out of the National Guard because they’ve done their job and suddenly they’re looking for employment and they can’t
get it because there are a lot of people out there who can’t get jobs.”
       What is also different about modern warfare and its impact on the soldier is that modern medical technology is saving more lives.
Many people who have been maimed are surviving. “We’ve got veterans coming back who are double amputees and they will be that
way for the rest of their lives and they are trying to fit back into our society,” Black said. “We have the capability where you can get a
veteran who has been hurt on the battlefield, brought off the battlefield and because of technology, his or her life can be saved. We’re
increasing the chances of their lives being saved just because of the technology today. But once they are saved, now we have a veteran
who has an issue. And we have to deal with that issue.”
       All of this is putting pressure on the systems that were created to provide veterans services in the state. While trying to maintain the
new services for veterans, Black is also feeling compelled to develop new services to deal with issues that have relatively recently
come to the fore. But the resources are not there to do the job that Black feels that veterans deserve.
       “Part of our problem is that we’re on our last leg in terms of dollars to support the programs that we have set up currently, let alone
the programs that we are trying to set up to deal with the new problems associated with the new veterans community,” Black said. “So
for three biennium’s in a row, the legislative body come budget time, has said ‘We’re going to take care of you, just give us one more
biennium.’ And for three biennium in a row, we’ve been put on the back burner. And for three biennium in a row, the legislative body — or
the whole system — has said we need additional funding from you in order to help us balance the budget. So they’ve been putting us on
the back burner and taking money out of our coffers. Now we are at that point where we go into the red at the end of this biennium. So it is
important that this time around, the legislature body passes the right legislative piece to ensure that we get funding to sustain not only the
current programs that we have to take care of our veterans — those from 18 to 99, but also to fund the new systems that we are trying to
stand up to take care of our veterans.”
       During the upcoming biennium budget deliberations to pass the 2011-2013 state biennial budget, Black feels that veterans need to
make their needs and presence known. “It is my intent to get out into the community, hear what the veterans have to say and then bring
the veterans together around April next year to ensure that we amass in Madison to make sure that the legislators clearly understand that
we intend to fight for what the veterans deserve and what they need in order to continue to support them,” Black emphasized. “We intend
to come to the legislative body around the April timeframe and ask for budgetary dollars to continue to provide the services that we
currently provide and stand up new programs so we can take care of the veterans coming back.”