SALT LAKE CITY — When Derrel Lanier left the U.S. Army after nine years in uniform, he found himself struggling with some unaddressed mental health issues that affected him for decades after he left the service.
"I went for over 30-plus years before I found out that I had (post-traumatic stress disorder)," he said. Lanier, 59, was stationed at the border between what was then East Germany and West Germany along with serving a stint during one of the early Middle East conflicts, he explained.
With the number of minority military veterans expected to rise significantly in the next couple of decades, local administrators are working to ensure stories like Lanier's are not repeated.
"(Minority) veterans have many of the same issues facing the overall population, but some of their challenges are deeper," said Shella Stovall, medical center director of the VA Salt Lake City Healthcare System. "For us to know how to serve them better, that's what going to be meaningful for us."
Lanier, who is African-American, was among the veterans on hand Thursday at the Salt Lake City Public Library for a town hall specifically targeting minority veterans. The Veterans Administration estimates that the number of minority veterans is expected to increase from its current level of 23 percent to more than 35 percent in 2040.
Lanier said the stress of combat-related anxiety led him to depression and alcoholism. Following therapy, he realized that PTSD was in part responsible for some anti-social behavior and personal upheaval that resulted in failed relationships and moving from job to job.
This population is the fastest growing population that we serve. – Shella Stovall, medical center director of the VA Salt Lake City Healthcare System
"After everything was diagnosed, the (Veterans Administration) helped me get myself back together and got into programs that (I needed)," he said. "I've reunited with my family, got myself back on my feet and life is great. I wish I'd have done it 30 years ago, but things happen in time."
Participants at Thursday's event heard stories from local minority veterans, visited resource booths from the Utah State Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, and met with community organizations. Following the presentations, Stovall answered questions from the audience in an effort to learn where the VA needs to focus its attention to better serve the minority veteran population.
"This population is the fastest growing population that we serve," she said, adding that their numbers are only expected to grow.
With that in mind, officials want to take a proactive approach to address the issues of minority veterans, Stovall said.
"We know they deal with discrimination," she said. "We certainly don't tolerate it at the VA when we hear it. We address it and take appropriate action."
Stovall said the agency is working to monitor issues with people of color, women and LGBTQ veterans to ensure they are treated fairly and respectfully.
"As we learn more about (minority veteran) issues, we target populations that might need our attention in different ways," she said. "This (event) is the initial effort in trying to find out what those issues are."
Lili Teeters was a combat medic during her four years in the in the U.S. Army. She said she sometimes experienced discrimination in the military and hopes that the VA will work to see that kind of bias is eliminated.
"The VA has done a great job in helping to build a support system for female veterans," she said. (The agency) is already moving in the right direction. Now it's a matter of educating the general (veteran) population."
Bill Johnson — a 28-year Army vet — said minorities sometimes are less informed about the outreach and services the VA provides to former service members. Using himself as an example, he considers himself well-educated regarding the VA and its program, but he acknowledged he missed out on valuable resources for the first 12 years he was out of the service because he wasn't as informed as he could have been.
He urged minority veterans particularly to learn about all the benefits and resources that are available to them, rather than losing out on opportunities for help.
"Not only are their benefits available at the federal level, but the state of Utah offers benefits," he said. "Get enrolled in (the VA) and apply for those benefits. Find out about them and take advantage of them."