Indy Q+A: Veterans services chief on new aid for Nevada military families
When it comes to helping veterans, officials say it’s not so much a lack of resources, but more that people don’t know about them.
In the past year, state lawmakers have passed bills giving members of the National Guard a sales tax holiday — a weekend on which they can skip paying the sales tax — and approved changes that make it easier for the military community and their family members to pursue higher education for free.
There are also constantly changing eligibility rules making more and more combat veterans eligible for compensation for health issues that may be connected with their service. In fact, veterans services officers over the last year alone helped Nevadans claim $200 million in aid.
Administrator Kat Miller of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services — a state agency that helps veterans claim benefits and runs nursing homes and cemeteries for veterans — discusses the latest changes to help past and present servicemembers with everything from housing to mental stressors to transitioning from military to civilian life. She also offers ways the public can get trained to better help Nevada veterans.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In Gov. Sandoval’s administration, there was a lot of talk about wanting to be the most veteran friendly state in the country. Do you feel like we're living up to that ideal?
Absolutely. We changed governors, but we didn't change the philosophy of taking care of our military and family members.
There's very few issues that are completely nonpartisan. But when it comes to veterans issues, they enjoy broad support across the Legislature, and in the executive branch.
What have you been doing to respond to the pandemic in state-run veterans nursing homes?
They were very strict on those protocols and visitation was extremely limited, especially in the early days. You can imagine the stress this caused not only the veterans in the home, but to family members who were only able to communicate via Zoom, or FaceTime or telephone calls.
It's better now. Early on, we got our staff and our residents vaccinated. And so we do have visitation in both of our homes. It still requires PPE. But there are some limits on what they can do outside of the home.
I’m praying for the day that we have this thing under control, and we can get back to full activities.
What trends have you noticed in the veteran mental health and suicide prevention sphere?
If you're just looking at the paper, Nevada actually had a decrease in veteran suicide … But I think that is attributable to the incredible work being done by veterans organizations across the state, by the [Veterans Administration], by the Office of Suicide Prevention.
They're training hundreds of people across the state on what they call SafeTalk training, which teaches somebody to identify the signs, how to have a conversation with somebody who might be at risk of suicide, and what the resources are and where to refer them.
If somebody wanted to do something for Nevada veterans, and they could only do one thing, it would be to take that online SafeTalk training offered free by PsychArmor. It's a 25-minute course, and it … could save lives.
You can't hug over Zoom. How are veteran services such as Vet Centers dealing with those challenges of not wanting to get people together but still trying to reach out and do suicide prevention?
Well, the Vet Centers are still open. And if we have combat vets out there, they can go to a Vet Center free of charge [and] talk with others. And you know, the Vet Centers were created to have a less hospital like environment for you to sit down on a couch. It's just other vets talking with you, very trained, very qualified folks.
They were on Zoom and all of that for a while, but they got back as soon as they could, doing face to face.
There has been a great trend toward telemedicine … About a year before the pandemic, we started getting the equipment and putting the systems in place to do teleclaims, because a lot of our veterans, especially those in the rural areas, just weren't able to come in to make an appointment. And so we were thankfully when the pandemic hit, we were fully prepared to go virtual.
That's not to say there wasn't any impact. We had to shut down our cemeteries for a while. And then even when we reopened, it was after a couple of weeks, we were only doing in-ground burials because we didn't have staff.
Our Southern Nevada cemetery is the second-busiest veterans cemetery in the nation. So we had a period of time where if people were going to do a ceremony for somebody who was cremated, that had to be put on hold. And now that we're back to doing that, you can't imagine the workload, because there's quite a backlog of ceremonies to be done.
When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban retook the country, were you hearing more from the veterans community that that was an emotional setback for people?
We saw an increase in people seeking counseling, seeking services to talk with folks. It was a trigger for a lot of people and not just for Afghanistan veterans. Those who served in Vietnam — often, some of those veterans will feel like it was unresolved, they left before they finished, and there's some anger associated with that. And when they saw us leave Afghanistan and the way that we left, that triggered a lot of that anger.
I will say that not only the federal, but the state mental health resources, really pulled out all the stops to make sure that there were services available and anybody who needed to talk to somebody could do that.
One of the things that that came out of the session was your department now has a full-time Suicide Prevention Program Manager. How are they tackling those big issues?
The main work being done right now by our Suicide Prevention Program Manager is serving to coalesce community support around the issue of suicide prevention.
So you have Mayor's Challenges. That's when the mayor of a particular city puts her hand up and says, ‘Yes, we're going to do an effort to address veterans suicide in my community.’
A member of the Reno-Sparks Mayor's Challenge was on the police department. And they identified a way to be able to quickly use their computer system to tap into the VA system to find out if the person that they were addressing was a veteran if you had a crisis situation, because there's a different military culture, there's a different way to address them. And there's different resources you can refer them to if they need mental help.
So our suicide prevention coordinator, their work with the Mayor’s Challenge has been very, very important. They've also worked to do things such as bring chaplains across the state together to get training on suicide prevention, specially focusing on veterans.
The homelessness coordinator is a lot like the Suicide Prevention Coordinator. There are so many resources out there that are under-utilized. And it's bringing together the community so everyone understands what everyone's doing, and where they can go to for assistance.
There is also a full-time Homelessness / Justice Reintegration Program Manager. What are they doing?
We have some wonderful veterans courts in Nevada, some judges who have stepped up and said, ‘You know what? Diversionary courts are the way to go. Instead of putting a veteran right in the jail, let's put them on a special program. We know that they had something going on for them at some point in their life. Let's tap into that positive military culture and see if we can get a change going.’
But they're all individual groundswell kind of actions, creating a system where they can share information across the courts, bring in some federal funding for training for their vet court coordinators, sharing best practices across them.
And making sure that veterans who are preparing to leave the justice system and go back into their community have a better reintegration by making sure their benefits are restarted or everything's ready to go once they get out.
We see housing affordability struggles kind of universally right now. Are you seeing that hit veterans any differently?
We're not seeing a difference in the rates between veterans and non veterans on housing instability and homelessness. We are seeing when a veteran experiences homelessness, there are more services available because of that VA benefit. So if we can identify them early, there's not only more VA benefits, there's a lot of community groups that are vested in their well being.
Are you seeing veterans who are trying to buy homes have trouble competing because they are using a VA loan?
Sometimes the VA home loan is not the best way to go.
I always recommend that veterans go to the VAREP — it's a nonprofit association of [real estate agents]. And yes, they’re [real estate agents]. Yes, they're in business. But the VAREP organizations themselves are very helpful about sitting down with the veterans and they understand the VA home loan and some of the other options, such as the state of Nevada's ‘Home is for Heroes’ program, where first-time veteran homeowners can get a below-market rate. So there's a lot of options out there. It's still a very difficult market.
It looks like the Legislature passed a bill to establish a Nevada Transition Assistance Program for folks?
Here's the deal. Seventy percent of the benefits of veteran needs when they get out are not offered by the federal government. I mean, think about it — you just get out of the military, what do you need? You need to put your kids in school, you need to buy a house, you need to get a job, and you need to get health insurance. The VA doesn't give you health insurance, unless you're disabled in military service.
So the Nevada Transition Assistance Program brings together people in those spaces to help a veteran reintegrate. We have an online offering right now because let's say you're in Fort Hood, Texas or Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and you want to come to Nevada, well it's too late once you've come to Nevada. You need to start that before you come here. So we have an online Transition Assistance Program.
But we really need the in-person one, too. The goal is to, every quarter outside of Nellis Creech and Fallon, and then at a location that the Nevada National Guard determines north and south, will have a Transition Assistance Program. And it's not what we would call in the military ‘death by PowerPoint.’ But these different organizations will come up, like Silver State [Health Insurance] Exchange, and they'll say, ‘Hey, I'm Joe, I'm from Silver State Exchange, we can help you sign up for health insurance. I'll be right over there.’
And then everybody's sitting there at the table, they can go right there [and] sign up. We have huge buy in and support from other state agencies to do this.
Another thing that we saw a lot of the session were bills connecting folks with the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).
NSHE has always done a wonderful job on their veterans, and they always have veterans bills.
There's a couple of big ones that came out this time. One was that National Guard bill [that allows Guard members to transfer educational GI Bill benefits to family members]. This is not going to be a moneymaker for NSHE to do this. But it's a huge support to members of the Guard in Nevada.
There was also the bill that made it indefinite — you could use your GI Bill benefits, not just the five-year limit, but you could use them in an indefinite period of time.
What I'm seeing shift a little bit is a little more attention being paid to our military families. We're worried about military spouse employment. Military spouses are less likely to be in the workforce.
In fact, here's some statistics for you: civilian spouses — 25.5 percent are not in the labor force. Military spouses — 43 percent of them are not in the labor force. So what does that mean? You have a single income in a family that's moving a lot and has a lot of financial stressors. That is tough.
If the military spouse wants to work, and can't work, for a variety of reasons, that's a challenge. And some of them we're not able to solve, but some of them we can. And there's some problems with licensure, reciprocity, compacts.
The problem in Nevada, you have all these boards and commissions, you don't have an oversight mechanism. I have to deal with all 38 individually.
It's not just a veterans problem. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by making it difficult for these folks with certifications and licenses to come to Nevada to work.
Another bill people might not be aware of is the sales tax holiday for the Nevada National Guard. Tell me a little bit about how that works.
It was a thank you by the governor and the Legislature to members of Guard and reserve. It is hard to be in the Guard and reserve, and work that part-time job, and then be successful in your civilian job.
If you're going to be successful, you spend a lot of off-the-clock hours doing stuff for your unit. I don't think your average person understands how hard our members of the Guard and reserve work.
Our biggest challenge in the Nevada Department of Veteran Services is making sure that veterans and their families know about the benefits and services that they earned through their military service. They're constantly changing. And that's a good thing.
We have a program called the Nevada Veterans Advocate program. We have almost 800 certified Nevada veterans advocates. They can take a 20-module online class or an in-person class, and you learn the most common benefits and services that veterans need to know about, whether it be burial benefits or education benefits, or health care benefits.
You either use that information to help you if you're a veteran, or we have a lot of non-veterans that help out and they're in the PTA, or a church group, or they're a county commissioner or whatever. And what we need to do is make sure that in every community in Nevada, there are people that have knowledge.
I'd like to have 5,000 of them, so as many people as we can get trained as possible, I think that would be really important.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you're having a problem, or you have a concern, please let us know. Our job at the Nevada Department of Veterans Services is to address every issue, question or concern of any veteran or family member of a veteran or active serving member, active military or reservist in Nevada.
Our website about the Department of Veterans Services is www.veterans.nv.gov. And right on the front page of our [website], there's a big button that says ‘Ask a VSO’ [veterans service officer], so anybody can just click that, put their question, what their problem or concern is, and we will get back with them within 24 business hours.
Tim Lenard contributed to this report.