SOUTHAMPTON — The rates of homelessness, depression, suicide and unemployment for veterans coming out of the military are high, according to Michelle Murdock, veterans service officer for Southampton. Murdock knows the statistics, but also knows from personal experience the shock veterans experience reentering society.

“I came from a place where someone was telling me when to go do my job, how to get there, what I need to do to get there, when to eat,” Murdock said. “Personal responsibility becomes a new challenge.”

Murdock’s transition to civilian life was less fraught with difficulty after she joined a support group for women veterans leaving the services. Social supports are an important part of veterans benefits. Connecting to the social, medical and financial benefits available through the Veterans Administration is the first and most important step to ease the transition into the private sector.

Every town is required to have a veterans service officer, Murdock, who also serves as the officer in Auburn, was active in the military for six years and employed as a VSO for 11 years. She understands a wide variety of supports are necessary to make the transition less jarring.

Securing benefits begins with an interview with Murdock, who has office hours every Thursday. Medical services are a primary concern because many veterans are transitioned out of active duty due to physical or psychiatric injuries. Basic levels of medical and dental care, “routine, yearly checks,” Murdock said, are also important and available through the VA.

If a veteran retires from the military after 20 years they receive lifetime medical benefits. Those who separate sooner have access to VA medical benefits for 90 days. An identification card is required.

The interview with Murdock will get a veteran a veterans identification card. The card is the key to VA benefits. Many veterans lack any kind of card showing they served their country. For Murdock, that’s a circumstance that needs to be addressed.

“What I’m trying to do with the town of Southampton, which they agreed on, is to create a card where they can … go to any restaurant [or] retail store and get a discount,” Murdock said. “But I’m still working on that.”

Murdock will connect with local retailers, but also contact big box stores, Lowe’s and Home Depot for example, that already offer discounts for veterans. She wants to ensure those who served don’t miss out on any savings. The Southampton card, however, won’t replace the veterans identification card.

Murdock also wants to make sure those transitioning back into society have help getting a job. The VA offers job search assistance and programs to learn new skills, or enrich the skills learned in AIT, advanced individual training. The initial interview with Murdock will clarify which programs will best serve a particular veteran.

“The type of education they get in AIT … those courses are then transferred into credits … they are able to use to transition into the civilian world,” Murdock said. They can “use the education they had in the military toward a civilian job.”

Murdock appreciates that society is more respectful of veterans now, but families still face significant emotional and social costs. Family members often need support during a veteran’s transition back into society. Toward that end, and to learn about the veterans population in Southampton, Murdock wants to stage a community day, set up a food tent, introduce them to the nonprofit companies offering support services.

Murdock warned veterans away from companies offering supports for a fee. She will help veterans fill out forms, which can be intimidating and exhausting, to secure financial benefits from 401k contributions. Southampton’s VSO will help veterans apply for housing benefits, including assistance to make a real estate purchase, an effort to reduce the incidence of homelessness among veterans.

“Our main job is to help low income veterans to get state benefits,” Murdock said. Keeping people off the streets locally is something the VA can’t do. “Homelessness is huge. We are here to alleviate that problem and try to support the vets.”

Murdock urged veterans with any questions about benefits through the VA or the state to contact her at 413-552-9047. “There’s so many benefits that all I can say is … give me a call.”

dpruyne@thereminder.com | + posts