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Number of vets using benefits increasing

They've been to places most Americans will never see, under conditions no one wants to think about, in countries with names most people cannot spell.

Now, more than half of the country's nearly 22 million living veterans are receiving at least one benefit or service guaranteed to them because of their service to the nation -- an increase of more than 1 million veterans over four years, said Meagan Lutz, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"The latest generation of veterans is enrolling in the VA at a higher rate than previous ones," Lutz said. "Sixty-two percent of those who deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have used at least one VA benefit or service. Veterans who have served in recent conflicts are eligible for five years of free health care from the VA.

"Currently, more than 55 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are using VA health care, a rate of utilization greater than previous generations of veterans."

The VA has not conducted a study on the increased use of benefits, but Lutz speculated that it could be due to technology and better communication between the Department of Defense and the VA to ensure veterans' needs are met.

"There's also a slightly different attitude toward the experience of our veterans, and they are more open to talk about their experiences and tell other veterans about the benefits they have," she said.

Lt. Col. Dave Johnson, chaplain for the North Dakota National Guard, said veterans are encouraged to seek support early and know that help is available anytime.

"Issues and problems often become larger or negatively impact more of our lives if not addressed early on," he said. "I would encourage a service member to begin by speaking with their battle buddy, family member or someone they trust, and then guide them to determine what may be the source of concern for them, spiritual, emotional, relational, physical."

Service members are made aware of the services available to them, especially as the services change to accommodate them, Johnson said.

"Unlike past wars, there is an increasing effort to highlight the support systems that are in place," he said. "This is an ongoing effort, but a necessary one. After all, to seek support is a sign of strength and courage."

And services for veterans and their family members are widely accessed, said JoAnne Hoesel, director of the Division Mental Health & Substance Abuse for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

"With veterans, it's a unique set of circumstances and the Veteran's Administration is increasing what they offer to veterans if they choose to use it," she said. "North Dakota had a high representation of people in the National Guard who have fought in our wars, so there certainly is a high need for service now that veterans are returning, some with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries."

Even when they return to school, VA support continues to be within reach, said Rhonda Schauer, North Dakota University System state approving agency director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It could take several terms for student veterans to get the hang of the academic system," she said. "Many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have trouble making the transition from soldier to student, since service members typically are told each day what to do, what to wear and what to eat.

"However, because service members often come to college with greater discipline and skills than the typical student, they are excellent at teamwork."

To help with the adjustment, Carol Anson, veterans/military advisor with the Student Success Center at the University of North Dakota -- the NDUS institution with the highest veterans enrollment this spring -- said a van from the VA comes by the school's Student Union once or twice a month to meet with student veterans.

"I'm sure it's an adjustment for many of the students when they come back, and some of them choose to deal with it on their own, while others choose to talk to counselors we have on campus at the counseling center," she said. "The main thing for them is to adjust to civilian life and not being in war, so these students often like to talk to other veterans who can relate to how they feel and what they've gone through."