Details on Proposed Veteran Service Center Slow to Form
By Brandi Makuski
Leaders from Portage County say they’re slowly beginning to identify potential locations for a proposed veteran services center, which include an office inside the courthouse to an entire standalone building.
The center, along with the services it offers, could become a focal point for area veterans regardless of age or time of deployment. The idea is to proactively provide wide-ranging support, referrals and information to veterans with various service- connected injuries, to include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as employment and housing assistance for veterans and their families.
Portage Co. Executive Patty Dreier said the importance of veteran socialization shouldn’t be ignored, either, saying the center should provide a “holistic” approach to helping veterans and their families.
“This (center) is driven more by the community than by the government,” Dreier said, adding she expects details on the center to be narrowed down over the next year because it would require long-term input from numerous area veterans’ organizations.
“I know there are possibilities of spaces (for the center),” she said. “Let’s say we build a new health care center. Imagine that for a minute; we have a really solid building in the Portage County Health Care Center. Wouldn’t that be an interesting place for a veteran service center? It would offer so many possibilities- transitional living, offices, places for pure mentor-ship and coffee.”
Dreier referred to a county proposal which builds a new $20 million, 100- bed building for the health care center. Should that move forward, the remaining building would be an ideal location and size for veteran services, she said.
The possibility of having its own building could offer 24- hour availability to veterans, which Dreier said could increase the services it can offer.
“I think the biggest thing is to not let the space be the defining thing here; I think the service center is what is most important. I believe there’s some building momentum; building around the idea of a collaborative space for veterans, something more than just coming in to learn about your benefits,” she said.
Veteran Services Officer Mike Clements said he’s open to discussion on any proposed location, including currently vacant space inside the courthouse once occupied by the local child support offices.
“I talked to Patty Dreier and said I’d like to look at that; there’d be numerous advantages to that location,” Clements said. “It would give better privacy and confidentiality in meeting with the veterans in a more secure area and more meeting space for the Department of Workforce Development and veteran’s outreach and homeless veteran’s counselors.”
Clements said he’s met with local veteran organizations and also worked hard to conduct a survey on the proposed center. Last November county leaders released an anonymous survey asking veterans, family members and other residents to address concerns or wishes so Clements and other officials could better determine what shape the center should take. Only 118 surveys were returned.
Local law enforcement is also working with Clements’ office to help shape the center. Stevens Point Police Chief Kevin Ruder said too often the first time a veteran is identified as needing help is only after police are called.
Ruder said his department created its first veterans liaison officer position in 2012 after an “alarming” increase in calls involving veterans suffering PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, along with a spike in veteran suicides nationwide. A new veteran service center could preempt those events, with assistance from the department’s liaison and county law enforcement.
“Sometimes the service member or veteran may not come forward to ask for help,” Ruder said. “It’s a matter of pride for a lot of them, or maybe they themselves don’t see they have issues that can actually be addressed and managed. Often times, it’s a spouse or other close family member or friend who sees from the outside what kind of help the service member or veteran needs.”
Clements said the national AMVETS organization has offered his office 1-2 computer stations designed for veterans to conduct job searches but he has no space for them. He said he plans to address the Portage County Space & Properties Committee in June about identifying viable locations with larger space. Then, he said, the discussion would move towards how to staff the office and what kind of training and expertise those staff members would need.
“You could use volunteers, but from my perspective, I’m leery of inaccurate information being passed to veterans and families because the first time that happens you’re burned and you lose credibility. Especially important is if someone is going to make a life- changing decision based on information you give them,” Clements said, adding larger veteran service offices often don’t allow adjudicators to operate solo for the first two years because of the complexity of the information.
Dreier said while she interested in learning more about the viability of using the health care center, there were numerous variables which had to align before that was a real possible option.
“It has a lot going for it, but that doesn’t mean there’s a firm plan anywhere,” she said. “I’m wide open.”