Federal benefits for Wisconsin veterans have a major economic impact, equivalent to — if not slightly larger than — the state's beef farming industry, according to new research.
A report from University of Wisconsin-Extension found that while the number of veterans in Wisconsin is declining, spending on veteran services by the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration, or VA, is increasing.
In 2021, Wisconsin received more than $3.5 billion of VA spending, a 163.9 percent increase from 2002 when adjusting for inflation, the study said. During the same period, yearly per-veteran spending in Wisconsin increased from $1,798 to $6,852 when adjusted for inflation.
Steven Deller, a professor of applied and agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the report, said those funds return federal tax dollars to the state and inject money into local economies.
"We tend to lose money to Washington," Deller said. "Making sure that the veterans that are in the state are taking full advantage of all the benefits that are offered to them is one way of getting some of that money back into the state."
In 2021, VA spending supported nearly 36,600 jobs across the state and accounts for $5.6 billion of economic activity, Deller said. In Brown County alone, for example, VA spending directly and indirectly affected 1,266 jobs, $90,132 in labor income, $123,775 in total income and $196,676 in industry sales in 2021.
That makes the VA a rival of some well-known industries in Wisconsin. Deller compared it to the beef industry, which supports 34,900 jobs across the state.
Many of the jobs and funds impacted by federal spending on veterans are associated with the health care system, while the rest are associated with other spending by veterans in their day-to-day lives, Deller said.
"Think about every place that you spend your money, and how that kind of ripples through the economy," he said. "It's the exact same thing for a lot of these veterans."
In Wisconsin, veterans connect with their federal benefits through the state's 72 county veterans services officers or 11 tribal veterans services officers, said Ali Nelson, Kenosha County veterans services director and president of the County Veterans Service Officers Association of Wisconsin.
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"If it wasn't for the county veterans service officers and the tribal veterans service officers, that money would not come to the state of Wisconsin, and many of our veterans would be going into human services (departments for) economic support," he said. "We're trying to prevent that from happening. We want to be able to advocate for our veterans."
Joe Aulik, Brown County veterans services director, said local veterans services offices help veterans navigate all the documentation and applications associated with receiving federal benefits.
"Sometimes it can be very confusing for the veteran or surviving spouse or family member to access these benefits," he said.
While VA benefits help the state and local economies, Aulik said they're especially important for improving quality of life for former service members.
But he added that many veterans are not aware of their benefits. He said veterans also face higher risk of suicide than those who haven't served, and receiving VA benefits can help address that issue.
"Once a veteran is connected with the services or benefits, it reduces homelessness, reduces suicide, reduces economic (or) financial stress," he said. "And it contributes to the community because that money coming in (is used for) purchasing goods and services, whether it's rent, paying bills, purchasing vehicles or food — everything that we all buy."
Beyond benefits, Oneida County Veteran Services Director Tammy Javenkoski said joining a local service group, like the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, can also be beneficial to former service members' mental health.
"The best medicine for veterans is other veterans, and it's hard for a lot of them," she said. "But if they can take that step and join a veteran service organization, they're gonna probably find a whole new world. Because, with all due respect to non-veterans, veterans are a unique breed. They have unique stories to tell, they've been through unique things. And they're a lot more comfortable with other veterans who have been there and done that."
She added that it's important for the government to continue providing funds to support veterans because it’s the right thing to do for people who dedicated years of their lives to serving.
"Many of our men and women have been in combat situations, and I don't care what anybody says, you don't go to combat and come back the same person that you've left," she said. "Combat is going to change people. It's going to change them mentally, and it's probably going to change them physically too."