Livingston Daily -- When Josh Parish got back from serving in Iraq, he expected figuring out how to access his veterans benefits would be straight forward.
After his discharge, Parish went through T.A.P.S, a veterans assistance program to help veterans transition from active duty to civilian life. But he said he was discharged in Kentucky and unfortunately found out the information he received there was inadequate.
"When I got home, the resources they gave me weren’t there. It took three or four years to find resources," he said. "Someone in another state isn't going to be an expert on Michigan."
After working in Livingston County and state veterans affairs, he said it has been a recurring theme that Michigan ranks near the bottom for veterans accessing the benefits and services they are due.
"One of the biggest issues a veteran encounters is the educational aspect of not knowing what benefits they are entitled to and who they go to," said Parish, who co-founded VETLIFE, a non-profit for Michigan veterans. He previously worked as a regional coordinator for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency after serving as the director of the county's Veterans Relief Fund.
Last year in Livingston County, only 848 veterans of the more than 10,000 in the county connected with Livingston County Veterans' Services, according to department data.
The department not only helps veterans with federal and state resources, it offers additional county-level veterans assistance programs.
Livingston County Veterans' Services Director Mary Durst said all the programs are "severely underutilized."
"We serve less than 1,000 people, veterans and dependents combined. There could be upwards of 30,000 to 40,000 people we could help because of those who have dependents," Durst said.
Last year, 1,895 veterans and their dependents in the county received benefits, according to the department's annual report.
More than 2,700 used the VA health care system, according to department data.
The county's office helps veterans and their dependents access federal, state and local resources related to health care, disability, pensions, educational and vocational rehabilitation, life insurance, burial benefits and VA home loans.
Benefits also include emergency financial relief, child care financial assistance and mental health assistance, among others.
Durst said one major roadblock is that outreach is difficult, because county veterans affairs offices do not have access to enough information on who is a veteran or dependent in the county.
That information is not shared across federal, state and local government agencies due to privacy laws and other laws regarding veterans affairs and defense.
"I've been talking with (U.S. Rep.) Elissa Slotkin's office about this. We cannot get the names of the veterans in our county, can’t get it from state, the Ann Arbor VA (health care system). … So we’re limited to veterans who are already in our system," she said.
She said privacy laws, primarily, makes outreach extremely difficult.
"They are the ones who have to reach out to us," she said.
"We're early in discussions to see if veterans will opt out of this and allow them to hand out their information for the sole purpose of getting them their benefits. … It’s a known flaw."
She said many veterans do not realize they qualify for benefits or do not seek them out for other reasons.
"I think there is a perception that it is a handout, and that's a huge roadblock. Some of it is pride. But the other thing is some veterans feel unworthy, like, save it for someone who needs it more than me," she said.
"But if you take it, it shows the government it's needed, so they give us more money for it. It actually hurts veterans when veterans do not take their benefits."
Parish said after working in veterans affairs at both the state and county levels, he found there is a lack of cooperation between the two.
County veterans affairs offices have been operating for decades, and the MVAA was created by an executive order issued by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013.
"The county should be the subject matter experts, but they fight for the scraps from the state. ... The relationship between counties and the state is a volatile one. When the state (veterans affairs office) came to be, they came to county the and said give us A, B and C. They took all the information and took credit for it," Parish said.
Parish said his Howell-based non-profit VETLIFE aims to connect more veterans in the state to benefits and programs. The organization compiled contact information directing veterans to their county's veterans affairs office, which is posted on its website.
By Michigan law, all counties in the state must have a county-level veterans affairs office.
The non-profit has also started posting educational videos about different benefits. It also established the annual Vet Fest event that has grown to draw a few thousand veterans and their family members.
Joe Riker, chair of the Livingston County Veterans Affairs Committee and Brighton Township's clerk, who is also co-founder of VETLIFE, shared a personal experience in a release from the organization.
“As a veteran myself after serving nine years in the Army and Navy, I struggled to find help when I needed it most and almost became homeless when I couldn’t find housing after moving back to Michigan in 2013. I wish I knew the county had a resource that would have made the transition to civilian life easier for myself and my family," Riker said in the release.
Durst said her goal is encourage veterans to check in with Livingston County Veterans' Services on a recurring basis to find out what is available to them.