From tax breaks to special driver’s licenses, New Jersey offers its military veterans a host of benefits as thanks for their service. Sometimes, though, the biggest challenge facing those running the state’s programs is making sure that message gets out.
“We’re constantly pushing outreach to make sure veterans know they have some services,” said Brigadier General Jemal Beale, the adjutant general of the state Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, in testimony yesterday before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
“We’re using every manner known to man,” Beale said. “Technology, websites, radio, whatever we can do.”
The department also tackles more difficult challenges as it works with the state’s veterans, with services that are often just a phone call away for such issues as mental health and homelessness.
“If someone called today, within 24 hours we could find them a place,” Beale said, as he and other department officials made their annual appearance before the Senate committee which is mulling the state’s spending priorities for the coming year.
Taking a ‘moment to reflect’
But even as lawmakers sifted through the budget numbers yesterday, they also got a sobering reminder of the sacrifice facing active-duty service members. Flags in Trenton were at half-staff in honor of 20-year-old Army soldier Nicholas DiMona III of Medford Lakes, who died last month in a training exercise in Alaska.
“I think it’s important and fitting that we as a Senate body take a moment to reflect,” said committee chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) as lawmakers prepared to ask questions.
“Keep Mr. DiMona in our prayers and thoughts, and keep all the men and women who serve in your department in our thoughts and prayers as well,” he said.
New Jersey is home to a major military base and thousands of state residents are also currently serving in active-duty missions.
In all, New Jersey has over 340,000 military veterans, and the bulk of the department’s $96 million in state spending goes to support veterans’ nursing homes located in north, south and central New Jersey, according to budget documents. Outreach and assistance are also major initiatives, as are support services for the state National Guard. New Jersey also maintains a dedicated cemetery for veterans in North Hanover.
In addition to the state spending, the department also attracts significant federal dollars. And part of the outreach effort, Beale said yesterday, involves helping veterans apply for federal disability benefits.
“Every dollar goes back into the New Jersey economy and greatly improves the veteran’s quality of life,” Beale said.
Questions about mental health, suicide prevention
Lawmakers yesterday zeroed in on the department’s efforts to work with veterans who are struggling with mental-health issues and may be considering suicide. Beale highlighted the state’s Vet-2-Vet program, which is based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
“Our team there does receive many calls and, as in the title, it’s veteran-to-veteran. We found through our research that when a vet calls someone, they prefer to talk to a vet, they tend to open up more to a vet,” Beale said.
“It’s a great program, I thank you for that question,” he said. “It’s something we want people to know about.”
Lawmakers pressed Beale to explain what the department is doing to help homeless veterans. He said officials try to keep close tabs on the number even if it’s hard to track. The latest estimate was 570, although Beale said it fluctuates.
“It changes every day because of New Jersey’s borders with Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York, and because of the weather,” he said.
“If it’s warm out, the number could go up. If it’s cold out, the number could go down, and some vets don’t want to come in,” Beale said.
Still, because the department is able to provide immediate assistance, he said the homeless figure is “functional zero.”
Prepared to help at home and abroad
In addition to serving veterans, the department is also in charge of New Jersey’s Army and Air National Guard. More than 8,000 residents are serving in the Guard, and roughly 2,500 have been deployed in some capacity since the beginning of the year.
“Our missions range from peacekeeping, security and airspace surveillance,” he said.
For those who remain in New Jersey, Beale said they’re prepared for any domestic missions such as responding to a natural disaster like 2012’s superstorm Sandy.
“Our men and women are well-trained, well-prepared, and committed to service, not only to our state, but to our nation as well,” he said.
NJ’s second-largest employer
New Jersey is also the home of the military’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which spans parts of Burlington and Ocean counties. With roughly 40,000 employees, the base is New Jersey’s second-largest employer behind the state itself, Beale said.
Some lawmakers yesterday asked whether the federal government is planning another base-realignment and closure [BRAC] initiative that could diminish its role. Beale responded by suggesting nothing was imminent and that the state is using a consulting firm and representatives of the governor’s office in Washington, D.C. to stay on top of developments.
“I think we’re doing pretty good (and) the future looks bright,” Beale said.
But he also pressed lawmakers to support efforts to “grow mission” at the base that would help make it “BRAC-proof.” As an example, he cited the need to build an overpass over Route 539, a roadway that bisects the base. That would allow military personnel to bypass traffic congestion that can build up in the area, particularly in the summer.
“The overpass on 539, that’s a big one,” he said.
As the hearing came to an end, several lawmakers wished Beale well and promised to work closely to make sure the department’s needs are being met.
“We’re here for you guys and we want to help,” said Sen. Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May).