By Alex Bloom
Massachusetts is preparing for hundreds of veterans who are coming home after the country's withdrawal from Iraq.
This year's Veterans Day has local communities trying to get the word out about benefits available to them.
"We don't know when these guys are coming back and, unless they come in to see us, we don't know what's going on," said Thomas Hargreaves, the Methuen veterans services director.
Local agents said veterans need to know that they are entitled to tax-free war bonuses, counseling services, tuition money for college, and even special designations on their driver's licenses identifying them as veterans. Bay State leaders are encouraging employers to step up and hire veterans. State and federal leaders are also pushing for tax credits for businesses that provide jobs for veterans.
Mike Hubbard of Methuen left the U.S. Army as a staff sergeant in August after three deployments. Now the 25-year-old is using a state tuition assistance program to get a political science degree at University of Massachusetts Lowell.
But Hubbard said he wasn't fully aware of the benefits available to him and relied on his parents for some of the information. He said he wants to see the information about the benefits better conveyed to veterans.
"You are entitled to some incredible benefits that you've earned and you should take advantage of them," Hubbard said of the message that needs to be sent out.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, has taken steps to reach out to veterans, and said her staff is preparing to work with the many Iraq War veterans set to return the Merrimack Valley. A congressional U.S. Army liaison told Tsongas' office that Massachusetts has 3,232 soldiers — both on active duty and from the reserves — deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. New Hampshire has 1,265 deployed.
Tsongas said offices must work together to "create a climate of accessibility" for returning veterans.
"We absolutely are here to be a resource to you, whether we help you at our office or connect you to other offices to help you," Tsongas said.
Hubbard hasn't taken advantage of all the benefits available to him. A Special Forces communications specialist who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he said he collected war bonuses from the state treasurer's office for two of his three deployments. But he's eligible for $250 more for his third deployment, a six-month stint in Central America. He said its something he wasn't aware of.
"It expresses our profound appreciation to what they've done and the sacrifice they've made in terms of time," said State Treasurer Steve Grossman, adding the program has provided $19.2 million to Massachusetts veterans.
Ed Mitchell, the veterans services agent for North Andover and Boxford, said veterans who claim a Welcome Home Bonus are also referred to local agents. But less than 30 percent of veterans take advantage of it, Mitchell said.
"They really don't know anything about what we offer here in Massachusetts, which is head and shoulders above any state in the union," Mitchell said.
Hubbard said veterans are reluctant to admit they need help, choosing rather to take on a "life of anonymity" rather than seeking attention.
Hubbard said he has transitioned well into civilian life because he prefers to keep busy and returned to school. He's been able to reconcile tough experiences during his deployment by trying to use them as a motivation to succeed.
"I've sort of channeled mine in the pursuit of bettering myself," said Hubbard, who entered the Army after high school graduation and served for seven years. "That probably sounds trite, but that's just how I've done it."
But Hubbard said some vets will struggle transitioning to civilian life and need information about where to get help.
Hargreaves, the Methuen veterans services officer, said he tries to be as accommodating as possible.
"If somebody comes through that door, we're going to do everything we can to help them," he said.