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Tapping veterans as ‘strategic assets’

Tue, Dec 11, 2012

Veterans checking in at a Chicago job fair learn about various services offerred by the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

A former staff sergeant in Iraq and Afghanistan, Eli Williamson has snapped young veterans back to attention with the admonition to seek support, or “you are going to take yourself off the table, negatively impact your community.”

Veterans are trained to be part of something larger than themselves. When they become civilians again, they may not see that what they do matters, said Williamson, who is director of the Veterans Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and co-founder of Leave No Veteran Behind, an Illinois-based nonprofit focused on employment opportunities for former soldiers.

But young vets respond when he tells them they are strategic assets. “You have communities that are looking for your expertise, your drive, all the things that you learned in the military, all the things that made you part of the best military in the world. When veterans are seen as strategic assets, people will say ‘we can’t have this asset in a place where we can’t utilize it.’ ”

Veterans Day is November 11 and as of last spring, Illinois had 35,000 veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as general military downsizing, by 2016. According to officials from the non-profit, foundation, and public sectors, the state is also a national leader in programs that help veterans become assets – that help them to find work and to navigate their support system.

Illinois is one of seven states with more than 10,000 homeless vets, up to 7,000 of them in the metro Chicago area, says Brent Peterson, director of development at Thresholds, Chicago’s largest provider of mental health services. One in 5 veterans is returning with a severe mental illness such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is more and more the rule for soldiers who have served multiple duties.

“The more times you serve, the more likely you will come back with severe PTSD, a substance abuse condition or traumatic brain injury, the defining consequence of this war.”

The Veterans Project at Thresholds began in late 2010 and has served 250 people so far this year in what Peterson sees as homelessness prevention. About 60 percent of its clients have been post-911 soldiers, while 30 percent are Vietnam-era vets and 10 percent from sometime in between.

The difference is that while Vietnam vets took seven years to go from combat to homelessness, the newest group is sleeping in their cars within five years.

“The Vietnam-era vet is older, fits in line with the typical Thresholds member: someone who has been sick a long time, is unemployed, estranged from family, somebody at their lowest point. The difference is these new guys are not there yet.

The Union League Club of Chicago hosted a Veterans Best Practices Symposium last year and will do the same for the launch of Illinois Joining Forces Nov. 9.

They’ve been couch surfing, burning through connections to families and friends, unemployed because of their anger and mental illness.

“They’re hard to engage because they don’t see themselves that way,” Peterson continued. “They don’t want to ask for help from anyone. They really think they are going to drink and smoke and bench press their way out of this. They’re brave. They don’t want to be seen as weak. They don’t want to get help from us, or their family doctor, or the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] or anyone. That’s the major difference.”

The Veterans Project at Thresholds has broken through this barrier by using other former soldiers for direct service staff: case workers, employment specialists, and housing locators. “When someone has walked the walk, it helps enormously,” in getting other veterans to talk, he said.

Using veterans has also helped Thresholds gain more support from the VA. Over the course of a year, the VA gave the agency its most difficult cases, “and we did right by them,” Peterson said. Now, 65 percent of the program’s referrals come from either Jesse Brown VA Medical Center on the West Side or Edward Hines, Jr. VA Medical Center in Maywood.

Erica J. Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs

Employment is a vital piece in restoring someone’s mental health, whether they have been schizophrenic, bi-polar, or had PTSD, according to research by Thresholds and Dartmouth College. “So when somebody expresses a desire to work at Thresholds, whether you’re a veteran or not, whatever stage you’re in, when that person says, ‘I want to work,’ the process begins. The nice thing about our supportive employment program is that it is ‘zero exclusion.’ It’s never, ‘oh, you’re not ready.’ No one is excluded from employment ever and it starts as soon as you want it to start.”

Peterson praised the philanthropic community, which helped the program with both funding and name recognition.

“Early on if you have a beginning program and you have someone like Richard Driehaus or Pamela Buffett or Jim and Kay Mabie who make programs real with their support, because their name is so important, it’s synonymous with quality.

“What’s happening in Chicago and I don’t see happening in other places is this wonderful partnership between the VA and nonprofits and the corporate community,” Peterson said. “And then the big foundations, McCormick being the most obvious.”

He credited the McCormick Foundation with making veterans’ employment an early priority, and with pushing the issue in the business community.

Too often, veterans have attained skills – as medics, platoon leaders, mechanics – that transfer to civilian employment, but they do not know how to articulate them, said Anna LauBach, director of veterans initiatives at the McCormick Foundation. “Thresholds starts by looking at the resume, taking out the military lingo, and translating.”

“Veterans talk in certification,” Peterson added. “They are not used to speaking of themselves individually, to write resumes, because it is in their culture to speak ‘as a group we did this.’ ”

However, in the broader community, “I don’t think we’ve gained a foothold,” LauBach said, in helping employers see what makes them veteran-friendly. Big companies will acknowledge a veteran’s leadership ability but be reluctant to hire someone with a diagnosed mental health problem.

LauBach is equally concerned about supporting veterans on campus. They need help understanding their benefits, they need policies that prevent them from losing credit for classes if they are deployed mid-term, and their professors need assistance in distinguishing them from their same-age peers.

Military experience should also translate to college credit, LauBach said. “Some of the training you received, it’s very clear what happened. You can look it all up. It’s all standardized.”

Navigating the system is another problem. Forty-nine percent of veterans are not going to VA hospitals “because they see it as their father’s and grandfather’s hospital [yet] by the way, the VA provides exceptional care,” she said. When the former soldiers do search for resources, “they get bombarded and don’t know where to start.”

“Illinois Joining Forces,” in the works for nearly a year, is intended to start a conversation about better coordination of veteran services.

“We often hear about the ‘sea of goodwill,’ but you could actually drown in that sea of goodwill,” said Erica J. Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs since August 2011, in a telephone interview.

Set to launch November 9 at the Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC), Illinois Joining Forces is a partnership between Borggren’s department and the state’s Department of Military Affairs, or National Guard. IJF will convene 250 public, non-profit, and volunteer entities that serve veterans across the state. It is the first time such a collaborative infrastructure has been set up state-wide in the U.S., she said. In addition to in-kind support from the ULCC, Illinois Joining Forces has received assistance from the McCormick Foundation and the Tawani Foundation; the Pritzker Military Library will host the web site, long-term.

On November 9, agencies will self-select into working groups — around education, employment, families and children, homelessness and housing — geared toward a better understanding of best practices and who does what, she said. Agencies will also fill out forms that pinpoint their location and the ages of their clientele, any collaboration with other agencies and what they consider to be their function, ranging from counseling to criminal justice assistance, deployment family support, disability, education, homelessness and more.

They will set goals for the next year and come up with an education project. The behavioral health (counseling) working group, for example, might instruct primary care doctors who have large numbers of veteran patients on “Military 101,” she said.

“Here’s how you speak, the culture emphasizes resilience and self-sufficiency,” said Borggren, the valedictorian of her class at West Point who completed a master’s degree in comparative social policy as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.
“Ask the questions differently and don’t ask if they’ve ever killed someone,” added Borggren, who was an officer in the Army Medical Service Corps in Korea and senior staff member to Army Gen. David Petraeus when he was commander in Iraq.

Borggren said she expects the first benefit to be an end to duplication of services: “the job fairs across the street from each other.” More people will also understand what is happening inside the support community, so that they can actively refer veterans.

“For example, you are helping a veteran with PTSD and learn he can’t pay his rent. You can look up an organization that provides emergency assistance and collaborate better,” Borggren said.

LauBach also credited Borggren with developing a consortium of veteran-friendly employers, which will also be a part of Illinois Joining Forces.

“You hear these national media stories about poor veterans who can’t find employment but it’s actually structural issues,” Borggren said. They do receive tremendous training, not just in soft skills but in hard skills. Yet they haven’t found a way to say it to the civilian world where the civilian employer can understand what it means to him. One of the biggest things we can do as an agency is the skills translation issue.”

Illinois is also one of five pilot states on the President’s Veterans Employment Task Force, charged with translating skills toward state licensing ranging from the medical field to commercial driver’s licenses. Borggren has already worked locally on the issue with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“Despite the fact that you’ve received training and did it under stress circumstances you have to start at ground zero, yet it turns out you’ve done eight of the 10 requirements,” she said.

“You just need the last two, so we have to ‘identify the delta’ – the gap between the military training and the state requirement” — the disparity between what is and what ought to be.

Written by Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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