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W.Va. launches ambitious veteran outreach effort

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia lawmakers are launching a comprehensive survey Monday to learn more about the state's legions of military veterans and their needs before the next legislative session.

Aided by psychologists and counselors, the project plans to ask veterans about their health, work, education and family, among other topics. The survey is mailing more than 8,000 postcards to veterans this week, inviting them to take part. Veterans can also call a toll-free number to schedule a phone interview, or take the survey online.

"We want to find out what veterans out there need, and what they don't need, and also how they're involved in the community and what they're doing," said Joseph Scotti, a psychology professor at West Virginia University who's helping to carry out the survey. "Veterans are typically can-do people, and so we want to ask about that and document that."

Volunteers will hand out flyers at places like Walmart, and organizers will promote the survey with veterans' groups. To help encourage participation, those who do can enter a drawing for $500 worth of VISA cash gift cards.

Close to 170,000 West Virginians are veterans, more than one in 10 adults, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. Just 11 states have a larger segment of veterans among their residents. More than two-thirds of West Virginia's veterans are 55 or older, while about 7 percent have served since the Sept. 11 attacks, the estimate suggests.

Scotti said 60 percent of veterans never enroll with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which presents a challenge to outreach efforts.

"That's a lot of guys and gals out there who may need help but don't know how to get it," Scotti said. "We have a large group of veterans who don't seek services either because they don't need them or think they need them, or they think it's too difficult to go out and get them."

Scotti and fellow WVU Professor Roy Tunick, who teaches rehabilitation counseling and counseling psychology, helped design the survey and will analyze the results. Atlas Research, a firm owned by a service-disabled veteran, is managing the project.

Scotti and Tunick previously helped the Legislature survey veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. That 2008 effort mailed surveys to more than 6,400 veterans and received more than 1,100 responses. A Washington Post investigation that revealed grossly substandard conditions for wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., helped prompt that outreach, said Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, co-chair of the House-Senate interim Select Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The Post series included the story of Cpl. Jeremy Harper, an Iraq veteran from West Virginia with post-traumatic stress disorder who drank himself to death in 2004. Fleischauer cited that case and one involving another veteran who had lost a limb and his sight in combat and then burned down his mobile home upon returning to neighboring Pennsylvania.

"Just the thought of someone being alone in a trailer, and not being able to see ...," said Fleischauer, a Monongalia County Democrat. "These veterans risked their lives. They made such a huge sacrifice."

Fleischauer is championing the latest survey along with her co-chair, Sen. Eric Wells, D-Kanawha and a U.S. Navy Reserve officer, and House Veterans' Affair Chair Richard Iaquinta, a Harrison County Democrat and veteran. She cited how following the 2008 survey, the state began providing rides to veterans in mostly rural West Virginia to and from its four U.S. Veterans Health Administration hospitals. The state also funds social workers to help veterans with housing, counseling and other issues, Fleischauer said.

Other legislation inspired by the 2008 survey includes one measure meant to help veterans enroll in college, and another requiring professional licensing boards to credit relevant military experience, Fleischauer said.

"That survey really pushed us to do a whole lot," she said.

The latest survey also comes after lawmakers, at Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's request, created the Cabinet-level Department of Veterans' Assistance by elevating an existing state agency. It welcomes the survey, said spokeswoman Heather Miles.

"It's really hard to track veterans when they're not registered with the federal VA," Miles said. "What we're really hoping to accomplish with this survey is finding out what they're taking advantage of, what benefits they're even aware of, and then how we can better serve them."

The survey toll-free number is 855-299-6605.


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