Throughout this weekend we’ll find plenty of opportunities to show our gratitude to those who’ve served our country in the armed forces — whether it be at one of the many parades and ceremonies throughout the region, or by extending a meal, doughnut or free cup of coffee at one of the many businesses offering such gratuities to veterans. All forms of thanks, great and small, are worthwhile.
Equally important is our attentiveness to the unique needs of service members when they return home from active duty, not just in gesture but in tangible benefits and services. A bill passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives this past week is one such example. While it addresses a somewhat narrow population and issue — veterans on college campuses and their mental health — it also illustrates the need to think broadly about the experiences of those who’ve made deep commitments and sacrifices to our country.
Some 2,500 veterans are enrolled at one of the University of Massachusetts five campuses, according to a press release issued by state Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. Many are lured to campus by benefits offered by the university and the federal government. And, as we well know, many bring with them the scars of post-traumatic stress — invisible but real wounds from their service.
As Campbell points out, a veteran coping with post-traumatic stress faces unique circumstances on a college campus. It’s easy for veterans to feel isolated in that environment, where they’re likely older than most other students and perhaps picking up an education where they left off many years earlier, unlike the majority of people on campus who’ve enrolled straight out of high school.
That's not just a recipe for loneliness, it can be dangerous.. Research has shown increased rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide among veterans on campus, according to a fact sheet about the mental health bill. Research also notes that veterans on campus get less emotional support from their peers.
Given those conditions, lawmakers voted last week to launch a program that trains counselors already assigned to the state’s 29 colleges and universities to better understand the symptoms and nuances of post-traumatic stress, and to be better equipped to handle it. The bill, filed by Rep. James Arciero, D-Westford, looks to the UMass Medical School in Worcester to develop specifics of the training program, estimated to cost $150,000 to launch and another $91,000 each year to maintain.
That’s short money, and a fairly small effort, to support an important population — veterans working to improve their educational and economic prospects.
“Veterans need to know that there are resources to help them,” Campbell said in a statement.
And the lawmaker from the Merrimack Valley has a unique perspective, having started her own military service in the ROTC while a student at UMass Amherst before serving in Germany for six years with the U.S. Army. She later trained to become a paratrooper and worked as an intelligence officer in the XVIII Airborne.
Campbell's imprimatur on this legislation, which passed without opposition in the House last Wednesday, is a reminder of the importance and impact of electing veterans to public office. Broadly speaking, it also shows that simply extending one benefit, such as tuition to a state college, is not enough. Veterans also need and deserve a much deeper consideration — of their financial condition, employment and training prospects, physical and mental health, and, of course, education.
This House measure is a thoughtful, effective way to shore up support for people who need it. It's one that the Senate should take up soon and pass quickly.