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.”

Experience with VA

Experience with VA

Much of the frustration and disappointment that veterans experience, he continues, is caused by lack of experience in dealing with VA.

“They go somewhere and ask a question, but either do not get appropriate guidance or understand what they’ve been told,” Unger points out. “Maybe they have combat stress. So, I call my colleagues in the VA health system, team up with them, bring the veteran into the mix, and find an equitable resolution.”

His “world” includes not only VA hospitals, but Vet Centers — the storefront counseling centers that are a formal part of the VHA.

“We help the veterans develop a practical strategy for  taking care of their needs, be it enrollment, finding primary care, or more specialty care — like mental health or dental care,” Unger adds.

Unger can proudly tell stories of how his actions have made a big difference — perhaps even saving lives. In one case, an elderly gentleman had come into the office to take care of his final ID cards. Unger overheard the veteran’s conversation with someone  else, learning that he had fallen off the wing of an airplane in World War II but he had never sought benefits.

“I asked if I could talk to this guy,” Unger recalls — which he did for 30 minutes.

Unger told the veteran that he really needed to enroll for benefits if he had injuries sustained during World War II. “I told him that I’m a proud vet, too, but that he had to understand that benefits were not gifts but something he had earned,” he recounts.

A representative made a house call and helped the veteran enroll and secure a claim for disability.

“I got a call five months later — he said he wanted to thank me for saving his life,” says Unger. It turns out the veteran had posted a “for sale” sign in his yard because he had been paying so much money for meds that he could no longer afford the house. Now, with a 100% disability rating, the veteran receives almost $3,000 a month — and his wife gets some VA benefits as well.

“They were going to move into a veteran’s home; now they’re still in their own home today,” says Unger. “He wanted to give me some of his money!”

Of course, Unger said no, telling the veteran that all he had done was empower the older man with the information he needed to take care of himself and his family.

“I will never say to them that this is someone else’s problem,” Unger asserts. “Rather, I’ll help them work through their problems. I’m a disabled vet — I’ve been there, done this.”