Veterans Town Hall

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks during a veterans town hall meeting along with Sen. Dan Sullivan, right, Friday afternoon, July 19, 2019 in the Mona Lisa Drexler Assembly Chambers at the Fairbanks North Star Borough Juanita Helms Administrative Center.

In a visit to Alaska, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie emphasized a rising veteran population in the state.

Alaska has the highest veteran per capita rate in the country and the population will grow, according to Wilkie, as more military families arrive.

“This is a place where you don’t have to explain military service to anyone,” Wilkie said, in an interview with the News-Miner. “Alaskans serve in numbers out of all proportion to their size in terms of population and I do expect the active duty component of part of Alaskan society to grow.”

He cited the thousands of incoming Eielson Air Force Base residents, a result of the F-35s arriving. The byproduct, according to Wilkie, will be a growing veteran population as people who leave the service choose to stay in state.

Within Alaska, veteran demographics are already shifting, specifically pertaining to age.

“It’s changing as the state changes,” Wilkie said. “So the population of veterans is getting younger. I would say more than half are now under the age of 65. You’re seeing now veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq staying here and that means that we have to tailor what we do to meet the demands of that population.”

That tailoring process will start with making VA a more “computer savvy” organization, according to Wilkie, as well as being more responsive to a group that “demands answers quickly.”

“We have to go in many cases where the veterans are,” he said. “This generation of veterans doesn’t like sitting around and waiting — they’re from the information age.”

Providing care to Alaska veterans means VA has to work with the expanse of the state. As Alaska is home to several communities living off the road system, some veterans may not have immediate access to veterans clinics.

In the case of Native veterans, Wilkie said, VA has to have robust relationships with the Native communities and health care systems.

“The tribal representatives go out and find those veterans that are off of the grid and we work closely with them,” he said. “We’re even doing things like having drops on to houses of information, medicine, things like that.

“We have to be more creative in Alaska than we do any place else in the country,” Wilkie continued, “but we also understand that because of the unique geography of the state there are a lot of Americans who come up here to separate themselves from society and this is the one place in America where you can do that, and we have to work extra hard to make sure that we reach as many veterans as we can.”

He added that more than half the veterans in the state do not have contact with Veterans Affairs. The top clinical priorities of the department, according to Wilkie, include reducing instances of opioid addiction and suicide, by first reaching out to veterans.

As part of efforts to reduce suicide rates, the department has a crisis line set up at 800-273-8255. They receive about 1,700 calls per day.

“We encourage veterans to call. There is no voicemail. The average wait time for a live human is about eight seconds,” he said.

In Alaska specifically, VA can use technology to reach out to populations without nearby clinic access.

“For Alaska we have expanded telehealth. That’s one way we can get out to more remote areas,” he said, although he added bandwidth can sometimes be an issue.

At Fort Wainwright, Fort Richardson, and two air force bases the department offers transition services for those leaving the military, including those who were not honorably discharged.

“That is a change in the military’s culture,” Wilkie said. “That’s a change in the way we do business, because in the past you could only come to us if you had been honorably discharged or retired after a certain number of years of service.”

Wilkie stressed cultural change is key for addressing mental health concerns.

“We have to encourage people to talk about these things, to tell us, tell the military if they see signs not only within themselves, but within those with whom they serve,” he said.

He said this kind of awareness has to begin in basic training and continue throughout service.

Wilkie also helps head the president’s suicide prevention task force, which is aimed at combatting veteran suicide rates nationwide. He said his goal is to create a “whole of government approach.”

This approach would include working with national institutes, Indian Health Service and the Department of Health and Human Services, to examine contributing factors to suicide rates, which Wilkie said include mental health and addiction.

One outcome he would like to see is the department being able to go to Native communities to offer financial and material resources to help VA find the veterans who are not part of their community.

He also encouraged a national conversation on the topic.

“The value the Veteran’s Affairs Department has for the country in this discussion is that we are the most visible manifestation of a tragedy that hits all strata of American Life,” he said.

Veterans had the chance to speak directly with Wilkie and Sen. Dan Sullivan at a town hall held Friday afternoon. One of the local concerns broadly addressed was facility capacity, according to Sullivan.

Sullivan and Wilkie visited the VA facility on base during their time in town.

“The VA employees here in Fairbanks do a great job,” Sullivan said, “but we were literally going into offices that were quite small — literally built for one with three or four people.”

Sullivan said he agrees the facilities need expanding and that this is planned to happen in coming years.

“We are going to be moving resources from across the country to those places that have the most robust veterans population,” Wilkie said. “We’re not closing things down in other parts of the country, but we are moving people and resources into those areas where the veterans population continues to grow. Alaska is on a path for explosive growth in the next 10 to 15 years when it comes to veterans.”

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMlocal