Gambling for vets | Proceeds save one veterans program

By Patrick McDonough

Accepting a helping hand can sometimes be difficult.

For Army veteran James Anderson, accepting help can seem to be a contradiction with a way of life built upon pride, self-sufficiency and service. After nearly 20 years in the service, Anderson said he found himself at a crossroads earlier this year.

Having recently returned from deployment in Iraq on a tour bend the guns of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Army National Guardsman came up short on rent once during the transition back to civilian life.

“I had just been released from J-9 employment transition and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do and I was trying to be with my kids who I hadn’t seen in over a year,” Anderson said.

Anderson got help to bridge the financial gap  and received help through the Veterans Innovation Program offered through the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since its inception in 2006, the VIP has helped more than 800 veterans of the Post 9/11 wars with  grants to aid their adjustments. However, the Washington state Legislature cut the VIP spending from the budget as the state began to face billions in defecits. Last year, a group of veterans and the state worked to create the Hometown Heroes Raffle as a way to continue funding the life-changing grants to veterans.

Two programs within the VIP are set to assist veterans. The Defender’s Fund, which was used to assist Anderson, is a one time emergency grant of up to $1,000 available to veterans in case of financial hardship with payments made directly to agencies such as utility companies or rental agents.

The Individual Grant Program is the other side of the coin for the VIP. The money is used for tuition payments, to supplement income for on the job training or apprenticeship programs or other services such as child care or transportation assistance.

Anderson said the money received helped him through his transition and has helped move him forward in his life.

“I would have been homeless without the help,” he said. “It takes a lot for me to ask for help, but when it came through, I really appreciated it.”

Anderson is now working and enrolled in a culinary arts program at Olympic College in Bremerton.

He said the money received has made his life better, but the money might not have been available if not for funding made possible through the Washington State Lottery raffle.

Although officials at the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs said the program was instrumental in making positive changes in the lives of veterans, such as Anderson, the VIP suffered from recent rounds of budget cutbacks and faced extinction.

To save the program, Senate Bill 5806 was introduced in the state legislature to create the lottery raffle “Home Town Heroes” with some percentage of profits going to fund the VIP program.

The bill was sponsored by Washington State Senator Steve Conway who said the idea had come from the Veterans Legislative Coalition as a means of finding a dedicated source of money for the program. The Veterans Legislative Coalition is an independent organization which monitors veteran-related legislation in Washington state and is made up of representatives from veterans organizations such as the American Legion, the Marine Corps League, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other veterans oriented groups in the state.

“The coalition was probing for ways to find funding and we came up with the idea for the raffle,” Conway said.  “In the budgeting process it is very good to have dedicated budgeting sources for programs, that way it is protected from ups and downs of revenue streams.”

Jim Sims,  Chairman of the Veterans Legislative Coalition, said the coalition approached Conway and the senator championed the bill.

“Steve Conway is the guy who pushed it through,” Sims said. “He has been a great resource for veterans.”

The “Hometown Heroes Raffle” kicked off last year with 300,000 tickets at $10 a ticket.

The raffle garnered $2,925,910  with 98 percent of tickets being sold. The raffle gave out $1,410,000 in total prizes with commissions of seven percent, or $204,813 of the total proceeds going to retailers.

Of the $1,311,097 left, $247,571 is set to go to veterans, leaving $1,063,526 that lottery officials said went to marketing costs and administration costs to run the raffle.

“The raffle was an experiment quite frankly, but I think it it turned out well,” Sims said. “There was no other funding for the VIP program. Without the raffle it would not have survived and it is an important program for vets and their families.”

Heidi Audette, Communications Director for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, said the raffle was instrumental in saving the VIP.

“We get the delta between what it costs to advertise and give out the prizes,” Audette said. “For the first raffle the VIP program received about $247,000. It seems pretty equitable and we are pleased with the proceeds we receive.”

Conway said he envisions the lottery game as a means of supporting the program indefinitely.

“I hope this becomes an institution in the state,” Conway said. “Last year we raised $300,000 and hopefully next year it can grow.”

Arlin Harris, Director of Communications for the Washington Lottery, said changes are in store for the raffle with the name being changed to “The Veterans Raffle” which will begin Veterans Day and end Jan. 1 2013.

The drawing for the lottery will be held Jan. 2, 2013.

Changes for the raffle will include focusing advertising money on print and radio ads due to the cost of television ads, especially during an election year.

Prizes will also be changed with a single $ 1 million dollar prize, 30 prizes of $1,000 and 100 prizes of $100.

The lottery is not the only way that gambling money assists veterans in the state. The Washington State Gambling Commission does not directly administer money to veterans, but through the charter of many organizations across the state, money goes to assist veterans through legal gambling operations.

AMVETS Post No. 1 in Tacoma is among the top performers in state gambling for the year ending June 30, 2011, with a reported net income from bingo and pull tabs of more than $130,000. The former American Legion Post 68 was a big-time gaming operator, bringing in millions during its final decade before corruption and theft related to the gaming left it bankrupt and without a charter.

David Harris,  public relations officer for AMVET Post No. 1 said gambling profits from the post go to support the mission of the group which employs a network of service officers in almost 40 states who assist veterans in getting benefits coming to veterans by acting as liaisons and intermediaries with government agencies.

“The money we get, we spend on making sure that our service offices are staffed with skilled and highly trained officers,” Harris said. “These service officers help veterans get all of the benefits they have earned.”

Harris said money also goes towards upkeep of offices and transportation such as service vans as well as a “buffer fund” to make sure the organization has money to continue its mission.

Money also goes to veterans on a more personal level by financing the post’s veteran lounge.

“The lounge is a relaxing place where veterans can get together and have a beer and discuss issues affecting their lives,” he said. “For many of our veterans our lounge is a wonderful place to rehabilitate.”

Harris said gambling money makes a great deal of the services for the group and the lounge possible.

“With bingo and gambling and fundraising we are able to support ourselves and our mission to support and help veterans,” Harris said.

In Bremerton, American Legion Post 149 reported a net income from gambling for the year ending June 30, 2011 in the amount of $25,175 available to go towards the group’s mission of helping veterans.

Mike Hake, Finance Director for Post 149, said the money helps pay the bills and create a place for veterans to gather and be with other veterans.

“That is part of why we’re here, as a place for veterans to go,” Hake said. “The money assists in keeping the place open and it gives them a place to go like on Thanksgiving Day we get a banquet license and we throw a big dinner for any vet who wants to come in and have dinner,” Hake said.

Kermit Carslin and  Melvin Chipman are veterans who said they enjoyed the benefits of the post as they played cribbage in the post lounge on a recent Thursday afternoon.

Chipman, A U.S. Navy veteran said the post is a good place for veterans to get together and unwind.

“I have a lot friends here,” Chipman said. “This is where everybody meets.”

Carslin, 74, a U.S. Army veteran, said the post offers him a place unwind and to continue service to his fellow veterans.

A plaque on the wall of the post shows a host of activities that Carslin has spearheaded such as creating Thanksgiving baskets, Halloween and Christmas parties for young people and raising more than $30,000 to support community efforts involving the post.

“Being able to come here has helped to keep me from being a couch potato and helped me to do what I have done for the club,” Carslin said.

Money from the lottery and other gambling in the state not only helps veterans to transition from military to civilian life, it also assists veterans in accessing earned benefits, and in the case of veterans such as Carslin and others it can be instrumental in offering a place to not only to be with others who understand them, but also to continue to serve their communities.

Audette said Anderson’s dilemma with pride was indicative of most veterans she has dealt with. She said the state department of veterans affairs encourages veterans to seek help as soon as possible and said she hoped veterans understood they deserved any help offered.

“We are here to provide that help to them,” she said. “They served our country, and it is our turn to serve them.”