08 May Veterans Issues
GPP members recently considered Veterans Issues at their regular membership meeting for May, 2017. Held at the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic in Greenville and facilitated by Cheryl Wiggins, Senior Manager for Community and Public Affairs for Fluor, the session featured Charlie Hall, Executive Director with Upstate Warrior Solution, Jessica Jenkins, Fellow with Upstate Warrior Solution, Sherry Martell with the Veterans Administration and Stacey Reeves with the Veterans Administration.
Jessica Jenkins enlisted in the Army National Guard at age 17. She wasn’t sure about whether she wanted to pursue higher education or a career path, so she thought military service would be a way to gain some discipline and earn some money.
Jessica served for four years and was about to complete her service obligation when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. As a result, she was informed that her service would be extended, called a stop loss because we were in time of war. This extension took Jessica to the edges of battle where she worked as a communications staff at the most dangerous base in the conflict. While complete the somewhat mundane communications tasks of laying conduit and cable, Jessica and her colleagues would come under fire and have to run for their lives.
The constant state of terror and uncertainty left Jessica with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depressive disorder. She was just nine months away from being eligible for retirement when her condition, caused by her military service, led to her discharge after a suicide attempt.
Sadly, Jessica’s experience is not a rarity. An alarming 25% of combat veterans suffer from severe PTSD, leading to approximately 20 veterans making the decision to commit suicide each day across the nation.
Jessica, like many transitioning veterans, faced a dilemma of purpose in her life and was not sure what the future would bring due to her challenges associated with PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and outbursts of anger. However, her courage and work experience as a veteran are also assets that should set her apart from other job candidates.
Veterans face many of the same challenges as the general population who access health and human services in the community: underemployment or unemployment, homelessness, mental and physical health challenges, and more. But some are unique to those who have served in the military. Organizations and people that are part of the government, such as the Veterans Administration and Vocational Rehabilitation, as well as nonprofit partners such as Upstate Warrior Solution, are there to help with these challenges.
“Hero to Zero.” Imagine leaving the role of Army Sergeant, in which a group of soldiers reported to you, respected you, and recognized your knowledge, experience, and rank, and entering civilian life as a dishwasher or shop clerk where your peers don’t know or understand your former position. This is a common experience for veterans and can be demoralizing. Upstate Warrior Solution can match veterans with mentors and partners who have shared that experience and who can be a support and listening ear. Additionally, veterans can learn from these mentors and their peers that being a veteran in our community can set them apart due to their intangible leadership and social skills, and their ability to work and think in ambiguous or even hostile environments
“You don’t have to be a tank driver once you leave the military.” If someone joins the Armed Services and receives specialized military training, she may have difficulty figuring out how to translate that skill set to the real world. Employment services for veterans can help them find connections between their military experience and the job market, or they can press veterans to imagine what career they would have chosen had they not joined the military and support them in pursuing it as a vet.
“I’m a warrior. I don’t need help.” The very attributes that often lead someone to enlist – strength, decisiveness, resilience, fearlessness – may also prevent him from seeking help after discharge or retirement. Veterans reenter civilian life and may require help that ranges from negotiating the bureaucracy of veterans benefits to accessing mental health services for PTSD or depression. Informal “battle buddies” can be an important connection to help and resources, as can mentors who are former vets now working or volunteering Upstate Warrior Solution. Employees at the VA and other veteran-serving organizations are also diligent in building partnerships with other community organizations so they can reach veterans where they are. As an example, the Veterans Administration staff and Upstate Warrior Solution staff find homeless vets in tent cities and work with the Greenville Housing Authority and Upstate Housing Connections to find them in safe places to live.
Building bridges across the bureaucracy. The government does provide many benefits to vets, including health care services, assistance with housing, the well-known but not always well-understood GI Bill for higher education, and assistance finding employment. But once a veteran decides to access help, it can be challenging to navigate the system (how many months of education will the GI Bill pay for? What if I want to attend a more expensive college like Furman?). Employees within those “bureaucracies” are great at explaining how things work and making connections to benefits, and nonprofits like Upstate Warrior Solutions work to fill in the cracks and link vets to benefits they might not have recognized.
Veterans do have unique needs, but they also are a tremendous asset in the community. Their work ethic, organizational skills, sense of responsibility, and professionalism can make a vet a superb employee. Several employers in the Upstate seek veterans for their workplaces, including GPP members Fluor and Lockheed Martin.
What can the field of philanthropy do to serve veterans? Several systems issues are apparent that could be affected by philanthropy. Homeless veterans have the same housing needs as the overall population, and additional affordable permanent housing would be a benefit, which GPP members are working to address. Funders can also advocate for improved policies and systems to help veterans; for example, the current transitional housing location for veterans identified in Greenville County is in Greenwood, which strikes many GPP members as an illogical place for a veteran with a social support network or more job prospects in Greenville County. And, of course, funders can financially support those organizations who help veterans, such as Upstate Warrior Solution.
As organizations like Upstate Warrior Solution build coalitions and help optimize government programs over the coming years, gaps in services and resources will indeed be identified. GPP members and their associated philanthropic partners can stand ready to fill those gaps with funding, leadership, and other resources.
Although GPP members have varying areas of focus in their funding, most likely all of us serve veterans in some way, for veterans are served by and contribute to such a variety of nonprofits and public agencies in our community. Let’s also help show our veterans that we want to see them become productive and successful members of our community. They have the ability to lead, serve, and flourish, just as their parents and grandparents did as they returned from war over the last two generations.