Returning Vets Series- Part 1

Houston is home to the state's largest population of military veterans. And as the troop surge in Iraq winds down— the region will attract many more returning soldiers.

Local officials agree possibly thousands more veterans could move to this area in need of variety of services.

Laurie Johnson reports in part one of a four part series that one of the biggest problems returning service men and women face is simply figuring out where to go for help. There are nearly 2 million veterans living in Texas. Close to half of them live in the Greater Houston region.

And Houston Council member Melissa Noriega says this area is a logical destination for returning veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The first thing is we have a VA hospital. So we have the focus of services that are going to be available. I think we're going to have combatants that are injured, we're going to have amputees, we're going to have soldiers with mental health issues. I also believe that the economy is booming, Houston's hot, it's a good place to get a job and it's a logical place for anyone coming back needing to start again. And a lot of soldiers are having to reconstruct their lives after two and three deployments."

Long before Noriega ever ran for political office, she was a military wife. Her husband, State Representative and Senate candidate Rick Noriega, is in the Texas Army National Guard.

He was deployed to Iraq and Melissa Noriega says she suddenly found herself without support or medical care. That's when she realized Houston wasn't fully prepared to care for veterans and their families.

"I will tell you I have a master's degree and every resource that people should have, my husband is an elected official, I'm not a dummy. I was truly in trouble. Again, if I couldn't get the system to work for me, how many people were there out there that have the same problems?"

The problem is a lack of information and communication between service providers and veterans. There are literally hundreds of organizations in the Houston area that have programs for vets and their families. But few of them collaborate and many duplicate services.

Susan Lunson is president of the Blue Star Mothers Houston chapter. Both her children are in the military.

"I found myself on the web all the time, you're making dozens of phone calls, driving all over town meeting with people to get know them. And so I really think it's right there on the horizon for us to have these silos now networking, because the services are going unused."

They're going unused because there's a theme among recently returned vets: they're overwhelmed, uncertain and just plain tired. Figuring out where to go for assistance isn't what they want to do when they finally return home.

Tomorrow a look at the challenge of providing medical and mental health services for veterans at the VA Hospital.

"I want to say that we have a lot of excellent resources here and we cater specifically to the veteran. I wouldn't say that it would be a one-stop-shop, but I would say that it should be the first stop."

On Tuesday, the second part in our series "Returning Veterans: A Call to Action."

Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.


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