Nearly one in 10 of the more than 400,000 military veterans who live in Massachusetts earned that distinction after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, an influx that has forced the state to rethink how it delivers support services to returning servicemen and women.

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Nearly one in 10 of the more than 400,000 military veterans who live in Massachusetts earned that distinction after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, an influx that has forced the state to rethink how it delivers support services to returning servicemen and women.


The now decade-long U.S. war on terror began with airstrikes on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, and since then about 28,000 Bay State veterans have served there, in Iraq or other locations in the same conflict.


Another 9,000 or so veterans have returned to Massachusetts after being deployed elsewhere, according to the state Department of Veterans’ Services.


They include groups that played more central roles in this war than in past conflicts, such as National Guard members, reservists and women, who have served alongside men in combat situations.


While Massachusetts leaders have long said the state’s benefits for returning soldiers are among the most generous in the nation, the growing number and changing face of new veterans have prompted the Department of Veterans’ Services to step up outreach and launch new programs.


“The resources exist,” said Coleman Nee, state veterans services secretary. “The challenge is really targeting the veteran and getting them to come in and learn about them and take advantage.”


The state offers a range of benefits and services to veterans, including financial assistance for food, shelter and medical care; job training and education programs; a Welcome Home Bonus, which offers $1,000 to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; and a $2,000 annuity for disabled service members and parents and spouses of military personnel killed in wartime.


State law requires towns and cities to hire a veterans service officer, or veterans agent, to help servicemen and women access state and federal benefits – a requirement state leaders have emphasized recently.


“We have tried to strengthen training programs and use technology to make it easier for (veterans service officers) to be out in the community doing that outreach,” Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray said. “I think we have made progress.”


The state also is fortunate to have five federal Veterans Affairs (VA) medical campuses to treat returning soldiers, as well as VA community centers and outpatient clinics, Nee said.


But navigating the system can be frustrating, and problems for veterans persist, from above-average unemployment to transitioning to civilian life to a military suicide rate that the Army says has doubled nationally from 2001 to 2006.


To connect with service members, Nee said his department has turned to veterans themselves.


Three years ago, the state launched the Statewide Advocacy for Veterans Empowerment (SAVE) Team, made up largely of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, as a suicide prevention initiative. The team’s seven or eight members since expanded their efforts to track down veterans, identify what their needs are and connect them with health care, career centers and other resources.


“What we realized is there’s a way we can affect (suicide) at an earlier point by reaching out to the veterans,” said Kevin Lambert, special population outreach coordinator for the SAVE Team.


Each team member is responsible for a different section of the state and attends everything from National Guard events to town fairs to college activities to find fellow veterans, Lambert said.


“They really get at the grassroots level, and when they find those veterans, they are able to communicate with them in a way they really relate to, and they trust them,” Nee said.


The team has worked with about 1,400 Bay State veterans to date, according to Lambert. Sometimes help can be a simple referral to another agency. In other cases, Lambert said he follows up with veterans or even will offer a car ride if it means they will show up for necessary care.


Lambert, an Army veteran who lives on the North Shore, knows firsthand the challenges a veteran can face. He returned from Iraq in 2007 with two broken vertebrae after falling from a truck while carrying a heavy machinegun, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and other health problems.


“The war was the easy part,” Lambert said. “It was coming home and being a veteran that was the hard part.”


The Department of Veterans’ Services also has a Women Veterans’ Network that has been active since 1997, but took on new significance as more women come back from the battlefield.


The network aids veterans who have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the military, or return with health needs that are specific to women, said Cheryl Lussier Poppe, deputy secretary of programs, services and personnel for the Department of Veterans’ Services.


Nee said his department also has worked to train court systems to recognize signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. When appropriate, courts can divert veterans with otherwise clean records to treatment rather than jail. With efforts like this, Nee said he is hopeful the stigma of PTSD is lessening.


“You have sustained a wound in service to your nation,” he said of the disorder. “That is a sacrifice you have made for this society and this nation, and we have an obligation to help you heal.”


The Department of Veterans’ Services also has tapped three federal grants worth $1 million to help veterans find work, Nee said. Half the funding goes to training and employing veterans in “green” jobs, while the rest is aimed at helping formerly homeless service members get back on their feet.


The grants have connected about 700 veterans with jobs, Nee said.


While Murray said the care in VA hospitals is exceptional, veterans have described frustration with the pace of processing claims, disability applications and other paperwork. Murray said the state has talked with the VA about these concerns, as well as U.S. Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki.


“He said early on they recognized it’s an area where they need to do better, and they’ve made strides to do so,” Murray said.


Despite plans under way to draw down troops in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of Massachusetts veterans continues to grow.


There are still about 99,000 American troops in Afghanistan and 44,000 in Iraq, according to the Brookings Institution. Among them are nearly 1,900 Massachusetts National Guard members and 330 Army Reservists; a count of active military members from the Bay State was not available.


Nee said the state will continue trying to meet their needs, saying most are ready to roll up their sleeves, tackle challenges and move forward.


“We want them to be productive members of our society,” he said.


(For veterans' services, call 1-888-844-2838, visit mass.gov/veterans or check out the Department of Veterans Services on Facebook. Visit the SAVE Team there, too. Reporter David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919.)