Special fund not being paid to veterans in need
"Support our Troops" - Hoosiers across Indiana heard the call and drove home the message by purchasing millions of veterans license plates.
$15-20 from every sale was supposed to go into a fund to help veterans in need. But 13 Investigates shows what happened to the funds and why, despite your goodwill, some military families are being shortchanged and even turned away empty-handed.
Indiana is home to monuments, parades and license plates, all to honor our war heroes. In 2007, Indiana lawmakers created two new license plates setting aside a portion of the sales for a Military Family Relief Fund.
"To take care of our military families," said Russ Eaglin, Deputy Director at the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs.
It's money to cover food, housing, utilities, even medical and transportation expenses for veterans in financial turmoil.
But 13 Investigates found only a small percentage of the fund actually going to help veterans. Instead, the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs is sitting on millions of dollars leaving de-mobilized troops here in Indiana in a pinch.
"It makes me angry, because there's a lot of my soldiers that need help out there," said Master Sgt. Ken Caincross, a combat medic.
Caincross knows what it's like to come home to nothing except the clothes on his boys' backs. In January 2007, he took emergency leave from Iraq after fire destroyed his Bloomington home.
The family survived on the donations of strangers and the Red Cross. Indiana's Military Family Relief Fund gave the family a $5,000 grant, the maximum allowed.
Now back from his third tour of duty, it's not the house, but Caincross whose frame is weak.
"It's just broken me down. I'm just, broken and there's no way to fix me," the Army National Guard veteran said with sad resignation.
He's living with daily pain from the top of his head to the soles of his feet and carrying the hidden wounds of war including post-traumatic stress.
"When he came home, he was not the same person when he left," said Anita Caincross through tears. "It took me six months to get him motivated just to get up out of bed and carry on from day to day."
In March, he was forced to leave his job as an LPN at the VA Hospital. The Army ruled he was incapable of working. Like thousands of veterans, he's been waiting on Federal benefits since 2010. The partial Army check he receives barely covers the basics.
"We've had to resort to asking for some assistance on the bills just to keep the house and keep food in the kids," said Caincross.
$7 Million Fund Yet Families Turned Away
They are not alone.
Since the fund began six years ago, 355 struggling military families have asked for and received help. All told, Indiana's DVA paid out over $1 million.
It sounds like a lot, but 13 Investigates found it's a drop in the bucket compared to what the DVA is sitting on.
"It's over $7 million," said Eaglin.
You heard right, the state is sitting on $7 million!
Yet DVA records show 94 other families looking for help got nothing. Some were turned away simply because they hit rock bottom too late.
The law says veterans have to ask for the money within three years of deployment. Anita Caincross knows some of those who were told "no."
"You served your country, you've paid your dues. If you come to a point that you need help, you have to think of the sacrifices that they have made and the loss of that income, and they're left with nothing. And it's just not right," said Anita Caincross as her emotions swelled.
Not right because Hoosiers are purchasing military license plates to support our troops.
Each time a military plate order comes off the presses at the state prison in Michigan City, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles takes $15 from the sale of the "Hoosier Veteran" design and $20 from the popular "Support our Troops" plate to put into that special account.
In the first year of the program, the plates netted more than $600,000 in relief funds. From 2008-2012, more than a million dollars were deposited each year.
State Policy Keeps Military Families From Funds
What's equally troubling: the money will likely sit for at least another year, with few veterans getting a dime.
Under the current law, veterans with deployments that ended prior to 2010 no longer qualify and time is running out for those who came home during the draw down.
"So there are people that can't apply for this money?" said 13 Investigates Sandra Chapman.
"Correct," responded Eaglin.
"So what good is it?" Chapman followed.
"That's why we need to talk to our legislature next time and see what we can do to make that better," said Eaglin, acknowledging the fund is off limits to veterans who came home from deployment more than three years ago.
The next time means next year and that doesn't come as a surprise to the DVA. That state agency and Indiana lawmakers knew there was a problem but didn't fight for a bill that could have fixed it this year.
"No we didn't lobby for it but we supported it," Eaglin confirmed.
The Military Family Relief Fund is critical for yet another reason. Indiana ranks right near the bottom, among the worst, when it comes to our veterans getting full, timely Federal benefits.
Hoosier Veterans Near Bottom in Getting Federal Benefits Too
"When I saw the numbers of Indiana being 46th in the United States for providing compensation and benefits back to our troops, I was appalled," Eaglin told 13 Investigates.
So not only are Indiana veterans on average getting less than half of the compensation and benefits of other troops across the country, but many are locked out of a $7 million state relief fund set up exclusively for them.
A fund Hoosiers supported in droves, by simply purchasing license plates.
"Is this a failure?," questioned 13 Investigates.
"I don't know if it's a failure. I don't know if I'd go that strong, but it's something that could be improved on, yes," admitted Eaglin.
"There are far too many families out there, military families that need help," said Anita Caincross, in frustration.
"It bothers me to see people hurting," said Eaglin. "We're going to change the way this place operates. We're going to serve our veterans the best way we can."
New leadership at Indiana's DVA also promises to get more federal benefits to Hoosier veterans, faster.
The agency, with lawmakers support, dipped into the family relief fund and took $180,000 to pay for training for county service officers. Those officers are supposed to help veterans file better benefit claims, but for years, the majority of them have not met Federal standards to help Hoosier veterans.