By JOHN FLESHER
LANSING — During a recent ceremony where a Vietnam veteran was awarded some long-overdue medals, Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais asked the man if he was receiving federal services such as health care or education. The former serviceman said he wasn't eligible, because he had been drafted.
"I thought, 'You've got to be kidding,'" said Vadnais, the adjutant general and director of Michigan's Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. "That's not even remotely correct. This soldier had served his country in combat and never even asked what he was entitled to receive."
The case wasn't unique, Vadnais said. Many of Michigan's roughly 680,000 military veterans don't utilize the services and benefits they've earned — often because they don't know about them or misunderstand the rules. Although Michigan has the nation's 11th highest population of veterans, the state ranks dead last in federal money spent per person on services provided through the U.S. Veterans Administration — medical treatment, pensions, schooling, disability compensation, employment assistance.
During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Rick Snyder said he would establish an agency in Vadnais' department with a mission of helping veterans collect what they're owed. He signed an executive order Friday creating the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, which will begin operating March 20 — the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. It will serve as a go-between, linking individual veterans with government officials and helping navigate the bureaucracy.
In 2011, federal spending on VA benefits for the typical Michigan veteran was around $3,900, while the national average was over $5,500. The highest spending was in West Virginia, whose 163,000 veterans received an average of $8,700 each in VA-administered assistance. Fewer than 20 percent of Michigan veterans receive benefits.
Michigan's low ranking is longstanding and has several likely causes, officials said. The auto industry and other manufacturing companies provided blue-collar jobs with generous pay and benefit packages for many servicemen returning to the state from World War II and Korea, so historically there was less demand for government aid in this state than elsewhere.