What More Can We Do for Veterans? 

Tim Cortez, Caring for Denver Foundation Program Officer

I am one of the lucky ones. Besides my deployment to Afghanistan being a major disruption in my life and highly stressful, I returned largely unscathed. Moments where I could reflect and decompress through exercise and listening to music reminded me of the good times with friends and family. It also helped me cope when I could focus on my unit’s mission of procuring and supplying medical equipment and supplies to hospitals and clinics operated by the U.S. and coalition forces throughout Afghanistan. These clinics and hospitals provided health care to soldiers from many different countries and local civilians. Knowing that I would save lives because of my duties helped me to see a greater purpose that pulled me out of this day-to-day stressful environment. Furthermore, I was lucky that I retired from the Army Reserves before I was deployed again to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, so many of our veterans were not as lucky as me. Many have been deployed multiple times and have been asked to face horrific situations typical of wartime.  

After 20 years of war in the Middle East, the United States has many veterans who bare the physical, disabling wounds of war that we can see. But many veterans also suffer from invisible wounds of war. Psychological wounds that impact their ability to reintegrate and cope with daily life as they struggle to make sense of what they have seen or experienced while deployed.  In addition, thousands of veterans exit military life and enter the civilian world. These transitions from military to civilian life are highly stressful times for many veterans. For these individuals the highly structured environment of the military defined who they are, whereas, now as a civilian they are tasked with redefining their identity and role in society without the dictates and structure of the military.  

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration , approximately 5.2 million Veterans experienced a mental health condition, substance misuse concern, or both in 2022, and only 50 percent received treatment or care within the past year. For those specifically with substance misuse concerns, 90 percent did not receive treatment. Depression, alcohol misuse, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are the most prevalent conditions that veterans experience and try to manage.  

While there are probably a variety reasons Veterans face barriers with accessing behavioral health services, one of the reasons is the stigma associated with admitting that they are struggling and asking for help. Core parts of a soldier’s identity include being competent and courageous, while facing fear, danger, and adversity head on, even at risk to your personal safety. For many veterans, admitting that you have been psychologically impacted by what you experienced during deployment or that you may have a problem with using substances and then asking for help may be perceived as the antithesis of  the ideal strong, competent soldier.  

It is imperative that on this Veterans Day, we not only think about our Veterans, but think about how we can acknowledge and support our friends, family members, and other community members who served our country through military service, especially those who may be suffering in silence. We can do this by showing our support, listening to what they have to say, and letting them know that recovery is possible if they ask for and seek help. Most importantly, let them know that asking for help is a sign of strength and trust and does not take away from their military identity and accomplishments.   

We can also take Mental Health First Aid classes, offered by many mental health care organizations. These classes help everyday individuals learn the signs that someone might be having a mental health crisis, how we might have a conversation with them, and how to respond to them. Taking such courses can help us better understand and respond to the Veterans in our lives who may be struggling.  

At the community level, Veterans need better access to behavioral health services and support that fit them. It is important for care providers to understand the impact that military culture has played in shaping the identity of the Veteran they are working with.  

Caring for Denver Foundation is committed to increasing access to care that fits every individual’s needs in ways that resonate.   One example of this is our partnership with the University of Denver’s Sturm Center and the Caring for You and Baby (CUB) Clinics. With our grant funding, the Strengthening the Bridges Project coordinates the services of the two clinics so that the whole family can be served. In many cases, the veteran or military service member may have coverage for mental health care, but their family members may not. The partnership between the two clinics addresses this gap. You can learn more about the work that the Sturm Clinic is doing for veterans by reading their impact report here.

Knowing that many Veterans in Denver may be suffering in silence, we continue to seek ways to support organizations that help Veterans navigate their behavioral health benefits, provide direct care and recovery supports, or reduce stigma among Veterans.  

As a community working together, we can help support our Veterans who have made many sacrifices along with their families in serving our country. We can do this by finding ways as individuals and organizations to overcome stigma, listening to our Veterans, and supporting them when they ask for and seek help.