By Steve Lewis
MADISON, WI — At age 21, Jeffrey Unger said he already had a clear vision of what would become one of his lifelong goals — to help returning veterans get the care they needed.
“In my life I’ve enjoyed every day I served in uniform,” says Unger, who was in the Air Force more than 21 years, retiring as a master sergeant. “But when I came back from Grenada in 1983 and watched folks go through the return process, I realized I had wrongly thought we had learned something from Vietnam. I said to myself, ‘When I leave this man’s military, I’m going to find a position and make sure these vets do not go through the same things.’”
Those “things” he explains, include the challenge of working through the myriad details to receive VA healthcare, including enrollment. He vowed to help them overcome common barriers and make sure veterans become “visible” to the system.
As proof that he is meeting that goal and making a difference in his current position, Unger recently received the prestigious “Meritorious Service Medal” from the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs for his work serving veterans as the state’s Transition Assistance Advisor.
The medal is considered Wisconsin’s second-highest decoration, after the Distinguished Service Medal, and is awarded to private citizens, military affairs employees or Wisconsin National Guard servicemembers for meritorious service and achievements that contribute significantly to the accomplishment of the mission of the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs and the Wisconsin National Guard.
“What is amazing about this man is, not only did he serve his nation in uniform for 21 years in the Air Force accomplishing incredible things, what he is doing for our Wisconsin veterans’ community today. And the passion he brings is absolutely extraordinary,” said Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, before formally decorating Unger with the medal.
Unger began his current position in December 2005 following an active-duty career that included three years as an Air Force police office and more than 18 as a combat cameraman. He also has personal experience with some of the challenges of navigating the VA healthcare system, having spent more than 10 years pursuing his own claim for service-connected disability compensation.
Unger is quite clear on his challenges and goals.
“We help the reserve component servicemembers and their families take care of all their veterans’ program benefit needs and services, working with the state as well as with the federal administration,” he explains. “Most often, we help them enroll in VA healthcare and to make absolutely certain nobody leaves the ‘de-mob’ site without being visible to VA. We help them get 100% visibility.”