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Syracuse a Good Place for Veterans

Syracuse Ranked #5 on LawnStarter’s Best Cities for Veterans
Kenneth James Marfilius Portrait
Kenneth Marfilius

To commemorate Veterans Day this year, LawnStarter ranked 2023’s Best Cities for Veterans, where they looked at cities with high populations of veterans and determined it by ease of navigation of resources, housing affordability, employment, educational opportunities, and other metrics. The city of Syracuse was ranked #5 overall on this list of 200.

Kenneth J. Marfilius, DSW, LCSW, assistant dean of online and distance education and associate teaching professor of social work at Falk College, spoke to why Syracuse is ranked so high on the list. “Here at Syracuse University, we are committed to distinguishing Syracuse as the premier university for veterans, military-connected students, and families. We have a National Veterans Resource Center that cultivates and leads innovative academic, government, and community collaborations. This serves as the center of Veteran life on the campus of Syracuse University, the local community, and across the Central New York region.”

Read the interview below:

What are three of the best but undervalued programs or nonprofits benefiting veterans?

Veterans have the drive to succeed, and their experience in the military helps them develop leadership skills and learn new skillsets that are valuable in the civilian world. Unfortunately, veterans often face high unemployment rates, housing instability, and other challenges when they return to civilian life.

There are a plethora of programs providing support for veterans who want to find a good career path after leaving the military. These organizations provide important resources such as education, housing, occupational opportunities, and counseling.

Here at Syracuse University, we are committed to distinguishing Syracuse as the premier university for veterans, military-connected students, and families. We have a National Veterans Resource Center that cultivates and leads innovative academic, government, and community collaborations. This serves as the center of Veteran life on the campus of Syracuse University, the local community, and across the Central New York region.

Syracuse University is also home to the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). IVMF is higher education’s first interdisciplinary academic institute, singularly focused on advancing the post-service lives of military veterans and their families.

Across the nation, there are also local Vet Centers and VA Hospitals and a robust VA benefits and claims system. This system is designed for those veterans who may be diagnosed with military-related mental health or physical challenges and may be eligible for service-connected disability compensation and treatment.

In addition, there is a program called Support Services for Veteran families serving low-income veterans, providing supportive services and case management to prevent the loss of a veteran’s housing or identify new safe, stable, and affordable housing for the veteran and their family.

Our local communities are often the strongest advocates and assets for our veteran populations, as they are our neighbors and support systems. For example, in the Central New York region, an organization called Clear Path for Veterans offers art programs, canine programs, peer support programming, and culinary programs for veterans. These types of programs can be found across the nation, and I encourage our veterans and their families to engage in these types of programs as they assist in finding strong support among social connections and like-minded people—serving as protective factors against the many challenges our returning Veterans face.

These programs play an essential role in helping veterans reintegrate into society after serving our country proudly. Veterans looking for help can find information on their local facility’s website or call the Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, and press 1, or text 838255 to connect with a VA responder.

What is one way local and state governments can better support their veterans?

Local and state governments can support veterans by providing resources and programs specifically tailored to their needs. Some examples of government-sponsored programs for veterans include job training, financial assistance, and mental health counseling. By supporting military veterans and their families, we are investing in the future of our nation and showing our appreciation for their service.

To really sustain improvement in veteran health, we must first understand the need to sustain improvements in overall public health. Before an individual raises their right hand to become a service member, they are a civilian. Upon completion of their service, they transition out of the military and end up back in our local communities, part of the social fabric of our society.

I have previously served as an active-duty Air Force officer as a mental health clinician and worked for the Department of Veteran Affairs Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Team. As a result, I have seen firsthand that serving in the military in and of itself is not necessarily the sole reason a veteran may be experiencing mental health challenges. While military service may be a contributing factor, we must understand that prior adverse childhood experiences, including pre-military trauma, are a significant risk factor for the development of PTSD or mental health disorders.

Our local communities and state governments must work together on preventing society’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences and build the capacity to create knowledge around ongoing resilience-building when faced with adverse experiences. This can be done through the implementation of parent support programs, peer support systems, family-centered schools, and access to quality and safe education.

Furthermore, access to medical care; stable, safe, and affordable housing; food, transportation; and internet for the technological advancements in our society are critical for the public health of our nation. The single most important factor in developing resilience in children is to a have stable, safe, and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.

Programming must be done on a local, county, state, and national level. Our children will eventually become service members and we want them to not only survive but thrive in the face of adversity before, during, and after their time in service.

What is one thing civilians can do to show support this Veterans Day and beyond?

There are many ways civilians can show support for our veteran community and their families. Educating oneself about the unique challenges that veterans face and how you can best support them is the first step.

Volunteering with organizations that help support veterans and their families and actively listening, without interruption, to what a veteran has to say about their experiences or struggles advances all our understanding. Patience is critical when communicating with a veteran, as they may have experienced things beyond your comprehension.

We must continue to work on reducing the stigma around mental health issues among veterans. There is strength in reaching out, and social support protects all of us. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply call a veteran and ask how they are doing, expressing that they are not alone. It is important to engage in this messaging, so our veteran community and their families do not feel othered and begin to isolate, which only perpetuates the risk involved for those experiencing mental health challenges.

What is the best way to prevent veteran homelessness?

When mental health is left untreated for extended periods of time, there could be several consequences. For example, waiting to seek treatment could impact relationships and occupational function, which are risk factors for homelessness. Individuals with untreated mental illness make up a significant portion of Americans experiencing homelessness.

The VA is committed to ending homelessness among veteran populations. There are coordinated outreach efforts across the nation that connect homeless or at-risk veterans with housing opportunities, employment services, and health care.

We have engaged state and local leaders that have committed and implemented efforts focused on ending veteran homelessness. The VA implemented a housing-first approach, ensuring veterans experiencing homelessness can move into housing with wrap-around services, as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Housing first intently focuses on removing barriers to housing and accepts veterans regardless of financial history, substance use or abuse, and even criminal history. Transitional housing must act as a bridge in an effort to house our veterans as quickly as possible.

Partnerships with local landlords is critical to moving veterans out of homelessness. These partnerships increase housing supply and secure housing units more efficiently. Once the veteran is housed, we must work to maintain the housing unit by connecting the veteran to employment opportunities, health care, legal services, and community programs.