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How to Fill the Biggest Gap in Veterans Services

How to Fill the Biggest Gap in Veterans Services
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with a professor from San Diego State University School of Public Affairs. This distinguished gentleman has spent a good deal of effort in the area of re-integration of justice-involved individuals to “normal” society. He made the observation that re-integration works best when the receiving social structure is properly prepared. 

This means that we have a much better shot at keeping recidivism rates low when “the public” has the skills and knowledge to help provide a smooth ride from prison to life free society.

 

Do you have those kinds of skills and that knowledge? I’m not sure that I do…but I’m motivated to learn.

 

This got me thinking about what folks in “Veterans Services” social enterprises like to call “transition” — the period of time and the associated activities that members of the United States Armed Forces undergo prior to and immediately after “separation” from active duty and integration into life as civilians.

 

Here in San Diego, Veterans Services organizations of all sizes and kinds have begun to work closely with both government and military command to re-define the process of transition and the continuum of services necessary to help folks in that process be more successful at it. Many other communities around the United States are actively thinking about the same things, developing best practices and dramatically improving their local transition processes to be better than they may ever have been.

 

I honor that hard work and commitment and want very much to see it succeed. I have no doubt that it can, but the professor’s comments about re-integration made me wonder: is the public ready for this? As a civilian in San Diego, am I prepared for this?

 

Why me? Because after a Service member separates, I’m part of the community he or she lives in. I’m part of the workforce Service members expect to contribute to. I’m part of the social fabric a transitioning Service member hopes to weave their skills and capabilities into. What do I need to do, learn, understand and appreciate to be ready to help transitioning Service members become successful in civilian life?

 

We have a very progressive Chaplaincy at our local Veterans Administration Healthcare Center. One of the interesting programs these Chaplains launched is a couples retreat called “From Warrior to Soulmate” that seeks to help military members and their significant others become a strong family unit. Warrior to Soulmate was so successful, both with Veterans and with Active Duty Service members, that the program went nationwide less than a year after it was launched.

 

The VA Chaplains also began a program of education for church leaders and congregations throughout San Diego County. This program helped clergy and regular citizens gain an appreciation for the needs of transitioning Service members beyond housing, employment and physical care. It was useful to the clergy as counselors and mentors, and I hope it was also useful to the members of their churches — the people in a transitioning Service member’s faith-based community.

 

The gap, however, between what we have today in San Diego County — as good as we think it is — and an informed compassionate and effective citizenry able to properly support and mentor Service members in transition is a big one.

 

Employers need to have understanding and compassion as well as skills and tools to mentor Service-to-Civilian Veterans. School teachers and administrators need the same skills and more to provide compassionate care for the children of ex-military families. Government and civic organizations have awareness but they also need to strengthen their skills.

 

And regular folks like me, my wife, our kids and our friends need to know what to expect when we encounter a Service member in transition.

 

So do you, in your community, when newly-minted Veterans transition out of Service to be your community members, friends, co-workers, parishioners, parents of your kids’ school friends…you get the picture.

 

And, by the way, Veterans are just one of the very important groups of transitioning folks you might find in your community. Others include formerly-justice-involved individuals, folks moving from homeless to domiciled and large populations of recent immigrants or refugees — there are most likely others.

 

To close this gap in services we need a new kind of agency or non-government organization: one that teaches regular folks how to mentor folks in transition.

 

Mentor? Yes: mentor. We don’t need more clinicians, therapists and professionals to fill this gap — there are plenty of opportunities for those specialties, too, in their own domains. What we need are regular everyday folks who are spooled up on what it takes to be both useful and compassionate resources for transitioning folks.

 

Not everyone is going to want to be a mentor of course, but everyone — yes everyone in a high-transition community — must be aware of what’s happening around them and, most importantly, at the very least must be able to offer someone in transition a word of support. It is critical to transitioning folks that the communities around them don’t express ignorance nor ignore their specific needs — this harms the entire community, not just those in transition.

 

Will you step up to help? Here’s an action plan:

 

  1. Learn about the transitioning folks in your community and what their specific needs might be.
  2. Teach people close to you what you’ve learned.
  3. Volunteer your skills in a way that seems meaningful to you to assist with transitioning folks’ integration to your community — if that’s mentoring, that’s best!
  4. Interact in some natural way with folks in transition — just showing up reliably shows your compassion and empathy and this means so much to someone in transition.
If you are a community leader, you can also encourage agencies and organizations around you to bring their energy and resources to this effort. You may find that, even though a specific agency may not be chartered to fill this gap, they will be able to offer some kind of assistance to do so, such as the San Diego VA Chaplains’ initiative to educate ministers, preachers, pastors and priests about the needs of Service members returning from deployment or becoming Veterans. 

Remember that old World War II poster of Uncle Sam with the tag line “I want you?” It’s no longer about a war, it’s about an opportunity to change communities at the grass roots. Uncle Sam still wants you, but now it’s about what you can do to create a stronger more resilient sustainable community that does more than just assimilate folks in transition. We have a unique opportunity today to create stronger communities, filled with extraordinary potential, provided we are ready and willing to engage those who want very much to belong.

We can do this. We must do this. Every one of us deserves it.

 

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