• Asked specifically about life insurance benefits, 80 percent said they have little or no understanding of them -- including 62 percent who said they have no understanding at all.
• Asked about education benefits, younger veterans -- who would be most likely to use them -- have far greater understanding of what's available than their older brethren. Even so, 41 percent said they have little or no understanding of those benefits, which include several different and sometimes overlapping programs.
In 2011, the Government Accountability Office pointed to the complexity of the VA's education programs as a possible factor that kept more veterans from participating. The GAO said that although outreach efforts were widespread, "little is known about the effectiveness" of those efforts, because the VA didn't have a way to measure its outreach performance.
Some veterans told the GAO they were forced to wait too long or had to call several times to get information from the VA's hotlines; a high percentage of the attempted calls met a busy signal. Further, some veterans and their advocates told the GAO that briefings for separating service members were not effective and often provided too much information to readily digest.
The GAO recommended the VA establish new performance measures and improve communication with colleges where veterans enroll. The VA said last week it was putting the GAO's recommendations into place.
Lack of outreach could help explain why the participation in VA programs is so disparate across the country.
The VA has long grappled with widely divergent assessments in the disability awards it gives veterans. The VA first confronted this problem in 2005, when news organizations reported that veterans' monthly checks varied widely depending on where they lived.
Beyond that, though, is the general issue of what percentage of veterans even participate in the program.
Among the VA's disability compensation program, for example, 25 percent of veterans in Nebraska participate, while only 10 percent of those in Connecticut do so.
In the life insurance program, participation goes from 8 percent in New Jersey to 2 percent in Alaska, according to 2011 VA data.
The VA said it's working to boost awareness of all its benefits programs, and it said that most of the variation it can explain deals with population differences by state -- such as the percentage of a state's population that is retired military.
The most significant change will come this week, when the VA and the Pentagon start the revamped briefings for service members transitioning to civilian life. The VA also will make the briefings available in monthly webinars.
The efforts will go a long way toward eliminating the problem of veterans who don't understand their benefits, said Danny Pummill, who oversees the VA's transition assistance program.
But while the briefings should capture a greater amount of younger veterans and keep their participation rates relatively high, they don't address the soldiers and sailors who left military service after World War II, Korea, Vietnam or other periods."Sometimes there's this warrior ethic -- I served proudly and didn't get hurt," Curtin said. "Those benefits are for somebody else. There's a mentality and pride and they don't look into their benefits. ... We've got to reach out to World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans who might never have looked at these benefits before."