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John Paradis: Troubled times for our military veterans, young and old

Called “Down Down the Deep River” by indie-rock band Okkervil River, in their new album “The Silver Gymnasium,” it doesn’t, on the surface, have anything to do with the veteran experience. Yet the song’s lyrics have everything to do with today’s veteran experience. I can tell you, it sure connected with me in a strong way.

Will Sheff, the frontman for Okkervil River, isn’t a veteran, but I’ve been listening to his band’s newest album a lot this week. It helps, too, that Will grew up in a small town along the New Hampshire-Vermont border near the Connecticut River. I can identify with his music. In “Down Down the Deep River,” Sheff describes his hometown of Meriden, N.H., as a good place to grow up, even if life there, as his lyrics stress, is “not all right; it’s not even close to all right.” It’s an endearing back-in-time trip with inferences of alienation and bitterness.

As a veteran who works with veterans and listens to many more, I can tell you that veterans may seem to be in a better place, but things, like Sheff’s coming-of-age moments, are certainly not all right; they’re not even close to all right.

At the first day of the Big E today in West Springfield, where thousands of veterans will take a break from their pressures and enjoy a good time with their families at Military Appreciation Day, many will no doubt be visiting the tables of information spread out from veteran agencies and government organizations offering help.

Leaders in the veteran community tell me that such efforts to assist veterans have never been better or more visible. Local, state and federal integration and coordination of programs and services are working to connect more and more veterans to benefits they earned and deserve.

Even the latest economic numbers and indicators optimistically portend an upswing, a promising note for veterans out of work. Nationwide, the number of homeless veterans appears to be on the decline — at least by the numbers of those counted by the federal government as living on the street.

But the unemployment rate among young veterans is higher than the national average for their civilian peers. We continue to lose more veterans to suicide every day. More family members of veterans are seeking counseling and support.

Gumersindo Gomez, the executive director of the Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts, based in Springfield, knows the plight of veterans as well as anyone in western Massachusetts. He’ll tell you, like the Okkervil River song, that not all is as it seems in river city.

A workhorse in the veteran community since 1986, the Vietnam Army veteran organizes an annual Stand-Down to help homeless veterans and veterans at risk, which this year will be held Oct. 4 at the Greek Cultural Center in Springfield. He’s also organizing a “Hoof for a Roof” run/walk next Saturday at Springfield’s Van Horn Park to raise funds for much-needed veteran housing.

When October temperatures start to drop, Gomez knows more veterans will be left out in the cold and more will struggle to pay for fuel to heat apartments or to find a decent place away from the elements.

Gomez says that while the economy might be improving, more and more veterans he sees are underemployed and demoralized. They either can’t afford a mortgage or have lost their homes to foreclosures or are barely at or below the poverty level. Old and young veterans are trying to scrape by. Veterans attended last year’s Stand-Down in record numbers — despite pouring rain. Some were female veterans, many with young children in tow.

The increase in those seeking assistance is due partly to better outreach efforts. But it must also be attributed to the breakdown of traditional family structures, the availability of substance abuse programs and support institutions and, certainly, in our region, the high cost of housing. The number of veterans in distress is vastly underreported, Gomez says. They are a fluid population that is hard to track. They “couch surf” with relatives or friends, find temporary housing or live day-to-day, night-to-night in their cars.

More 300 veterans in western Massachusetts, Gomez estimates, are part of that class of the newly poor who aren’t counted — those who struggle with the lingering effects of the economic recession and a slow recovery.

There is considerable anxiety out there among veterans. A million service members and their families are getting ready to leave the military in the next five years. The Statewide Housing Advocacy for Reintegration and Prevention initiative is busy. Peer support specialists, substance abuse counselors and mental health providers are in great demand.

Things are definitely not all right.

Not even close to all right.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the communications director for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

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