Guest Blog: Enhancing Veteran Engagement at College

By Madeline Wagner, Associate Director of Grants and Contracts- Northeast Iowa Community College, Vet2Vet Peer Mentoring Program

Student veterans bring new experiences and perspectives to social and educational exchanges at a college – however, they also face unique challenges in completing their academic and career goals.

There are myriad reasons that veterans decide to pursue higher education:

  • College degrees or certifications improve career options
  • It’s an opportunity to build additional skills, and
  • Higher education codifies skills and knowledge achieved in the military.

Furthermore, higher education can offer a transition period as well as resources and assistance in the move from military to civilian life. In support of these goals, the Post 9/11 GI Bill has provided over 700,000 veterans financial support for education and housing (U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014); unfortunately, just over half of student veterans earn a degree or certificate (Altman, 2014).

To realize these benefits of higher education, student veterans must overcome certain challenges or barriers that traditional students don’t encounter. Schools nationwide have been developing a range of resources to help student vets reach their academic goals. There is no one answer to how a school should support this student population – and it won’t happen overnight.

Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) has earned a place on the Military Friendly Schools listing, compiled by G.I. Jobs magazine, for five consecutive years, but there are still many pieces to put into place before we reach our goals of comprehensive support services for our student veterans. Central to NICC efforts to assist student veterans in their academic and career goals is the Vet2Vet Peer Mentoring program, which recently became a chapter of Student Veterans of America.

Many student veterans report a sense of alienation when they join the college world. A supportive learning environment can ease the transition process. NICC recognizes that some veterans may feel disconnected from the mainstream of the student body. Community building with students, faculty, and staff who have had similar experiences is one strategy to increase engagement. Student veterans groups offer positive experiences and opportunities to interact with the broader campus community that help veterans to transition smoothly from service to the classroom.

In the 2013-2014 school year the Vet2Vet group partnered with two other student organizations to conduct awareness and inclusion activities on campus including a presentation about how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) impacts returning veterans and their families and an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) demonstration in observation of Veteran’s Day.

Beyond a supportive community student veterans may need assistance in navigating resources to address issues that are non-academic in nature, but still impact academic achievement. Currently at NICC, the Vet2Vet peer mentors (who are discharged veterans, students still serving on active duty, or members of the National Guard or Reserve) are the first line of assistance in helping student veterans connect with Veterans Affairs. Supported by the campus coordinator of disability services, the Vet2Vet staff helps student veterans fill out forms to secure medical resources, connects student veterans with campus services, and provides referrals to other outside organizations.

Ivan Torkelson, District Director, American Legion of Iowa Foundation, Elgin; Amy Tharp, student scholarship recipient and US Air Force Veteran, Fredericksburg; Dr. Liang Chee Wee, NICC President. 

Ivan Torkelson, District Director, American Legion of Iowa Foundation, Elgin; Amy Tharp, student scholarship recipient and US Air Force Veteran, Fredericksburg; Dr. Liang Chee Wee, NICC President.

It’s important for a school to determine which services should be crafted as veteran-specific. Some services (such as academic advising) may not need a veteran focus because the entire student population benefits (American Council on Education, 2012). It is also important to remember that not all student veterans will want to take advantage of targeted services, or be identified within the broader college community as a student veteran.

In the upcoming year NICC will build its commitment to student veterans by taking the following steps:

  • Providing faculty and staff with veteran-friendly service training
  • Codify policy regarding student veterans’ leaves of absence
  • Building a web presence for veterans
  • Exploring the need for a dedicated veteran services staff member
  • Working with other state higher education institutions to develop firm credit-for-prior-learning standards
  • Partnering with statewide veteran-friendly initiatives such as Home Base Iowa

What services and best practices have your organization found most helpful in supporting student veterans?

70th Anniversary of D-Day: A Tribute

Dday

The overcast sky was an appropriate omen to the reality of that summer day. The humming of planes resonated loudly. Even if the men could hear one other talking, no one spoke a word. There was a certain understanding of what they would soon face, and their likely last moments would be spent in self-reflection. Though internally overwrought with fear, acceptance of their likely fates and recognition of this just cause gave them some sense of serenity.

The droning engines were soon peppered with loud, intermittent booms. A passive thunder on such an overcast day seemed unsurprising. Through the gray fog, a faint glimpse of the rocky inlays of the shore could be seen, the beach shielded from vision by the tall bulkhead of the boat they occupied.

The booms grew louder and louder. The closer to the shore they came, the harder their hearts pounded. The firing of guns and explosions of bombs paled in comparison to that metronomic thumping in their chests. The distinct smell of gunpowder filled the air, further fueling their inner angst with adrenaline. Water continued to splash inside what felt like a metal coffin. They couldn’t see the channel’s open water next to them, but felt every percussive shock from the shells exploding around them.

And for a brief, fleeting moment, a final calm came over them. Looking up into the gray sky, thousands upon thousands of white parachutes danced in the wind, inching closer to the water and what awaited them on the beach.

The boat came to a sudden halt. The metal doors swung open and in that moment, they stared their own mortality in the face, and defied every basic instinct of self-preservation for the sake of preserving good in the world. Bullets humming by their ears, brothers in arms dropping into the bloodstained water, shells exploding all around, the rocky hills in front of them seemed miles away.

And today, we are grateful.

June 6, 1944 was a defining day in the history of the United States and the entire world. In the face of danger, uncertainty, fear and doubt, nearly 160,000 Allied servicemen stormed the beaches of Normandy to face the German Army head on. They stood in defense of our nation and made sure that good would prevail.

On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, please recognize what bravery really looks like. It is seen on the aging faces of the Greatest Generation. They are the ones who, against all odds, refused to let evil win, and were willing to give their lives for that cause.

To our World War II veterans, your sacrifices will not be forgotten, and the debt of gratitude owed to you by every American might be impossible to repay.

To our Greatest Generation, we say thank you.

 

VA Problems an Inevitable Symptom of Department’s Overburdening

The recent scandal involving secret wait lists at various Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country is a nightmare scenario. The tragic circumstances revealing that many veterans actually died while waiting for care is beyond disturbing.

I was hesitant to offer any comment on this when initial reports revealed that the VA in Phoenix was keeping secret wait lists. I am usually of the opinion that people are unduly harsh on the VA; many times, the criticism of long waits and insufficient care is the result of some of the busier VA hospitals not having enough resources to meet the needs of so many veterans.

I thought this was probably an extreme example of a desperate measure that one hospital callously took to buy itself some time. It appears that was wishful thinking.

Dozens of VA whistleblowers have come forth with serious allegations of a similar nature to Phoenix. The Daily Beast recently added Albuquerque to the list of secret wait lists at hospitals. The doctor that came forward said that there is currently an 8-month wait for a cardiac ultrasound in Albuquerque.

“The ‘secret wait list’ for patient appointments is being either moved or was destroyed after what happened in Phoenix,” the doctor told the Daily Beast.

If that wasn’t enough, another doctor in West Virginia told Fox News that some patients actually committed suicide waiting for treatment at the Huntington VA Medical Center. She mentioned that VA administrators were completely unresponsive to her calls for increased care for these veterans. That is an alarming allegation that should send chills through the spines of Americans everywhere.

DVNF has mentioned the need for increased attention to be given to mental health and suicides in veterans. The 22 veterans committing suicide each day is disturbing. But if the West Virginia psychiatrist’s claims are true, it makes you wonder how many veterans took their own lives as a result of the VA’s negligence.

I don’t know what the answer is to this terrible situation. I know that increased funding always seems to be the go-to resolution for the VA’s problems. And while that may not hurt, I’m not sure it would help.

This is the second largest cabinet of the U.S. Government, behind the Department of Defense. While abuses are bound to happen in any large bureaucracy, what is happening at the VA seems to be a systematic failure to put proper procedures in place to ensure this type of thing does not happen.

Understanding that the demand on the VA has grown exponentially in recent years, this department needs a serious makeover. For the sake of our veterans who depend on the VA to offer the proper care they deserve, a better system must be implemented so that individual hospitals don’t feel the pressure to wait-list veterans in need of care.

Joseph VanFonda (SgtMaj Ret.)
CEO
DVNF

DVNF CEO Issues New Report on Progress Made Since His Arrival

Before joining DVNF, I saw an organization with loads of potential, but a need for more structure, more transparency, and more efficiency.

DVNF had several items that needed to be addressed, and I believe that in the first six months of my tenure as CEO, we have made significant strides in improving the entire organization.

Some issues remain works in progress, but after 6 months since I took the reins of DVNF, I am pleased to report substantial progress has been made in every facet of the organization!

1. Wrote a business plan for DVNF

I really wanted to get the organization’s ducks in a row, so to speak. In addition to the many important changes we needed it make, it was crucial to have a well-developed business plan for the organization.

This business plan contains our vision for where we hope to be in the coming years, both programmatically and financially. One of the major determining factors of the organization’s growth is the success of our Benefits and Resources Navigation program. If it becomes as successful as I believe, DVNF will indeed have a bright future.

2. Created a new organizational chart to reflect the growing needs of DVNF

When I began my initial evaluation of the organization’s many parts, it became clear that there was a need for greater coordination and clearer lines of authority and accountability. The organizational structure was simply not keeping up with our increasing activity.

Now, we have an organizational chart that creates greater role clarity and management accountability, which will be particularly important as we continue building out our program activities and growing the staff.

3. Created & implemented a new core of operations known as Benefits & Resources Navigation (BaRN)

During my time as the Wounded Warrior Regiment Sergeant Major in the Marines, I became well-versed in the benefits that service members are eligible for, as well as the many resources outside the VA that seek to help active duty military and veterans.

Fortunately and unfortunately, there are so many resources available to men and women who have served that they often don’t know where to look if they have a pressing need. There were other times that I noticed these individuals weren’t always clear on how to ask for help.

That’s why I created BaRN. I wanted to have “Navigators” in the office who could evaluate the circumstances of a veteran and work with some of the veteran’s local resources who are equipped to address many needs they frequently have.

As part of this, I also:

  • Evaluated all programs and policies
  • Wrote desktop procedures for all programs
  • Hired a new Office Manager, who has:

-Developed a new filing system

-Developed new office management procedures

-Evaluated & created new QuickBooks procedures

4. Hired many new staff members. All staff members are trained to be HIPAA compliant due to the delicate nature of the needs of the veterans we serve.

Everyone on our staff is trained in HIPAA rules and procedures, not only as a legal safeguard, but also as a measure of good faith. We want the veterans who approach DVNF to put their trust in our staff, and know that we won’t be careless with their personal information.

5. Hired two Navigators in the last six months. Both Navigators are trained in:

Non-Medical Case Management
HIPAA
PTSD recognition
TBI recognition
Tri-Care medical organization
Marriage & Family
Recovery Care Coordinators (RCC)

Not only are our Navigators well trained, they are also extremely patient and caring individuals. I am so pleased at how their hard work is making a real difference in the lives of veterans, and I know that these veterans are very appreciative as well.

6. Hired DVNF’s first Development Director

As mentioned previously, the main priority was to make our fundraising strategy more efficient and more transparent. That’s why I hired Barfonce Baldwin.

She is an established professional with over 10 years of experience in nonprofit fundraising and development. Her mandate is to sustain a strong and viable donor cultivation program and to develop new sources of revenue, including major donors, foundation grants and corporate gifts. She hit the ground running and has already proved to be an indispensible asset to DVNF’s present and future of helping veterans in need.

7. Increased DVNF’s program giving:

Grants to Provide Stability: Our GPS program provides funding to qualified veterans when they are in a temporary financial setback. This year, we have already helped close to 50 veterans in dire need. Many of which have been able to escape the risk of becoming homeless.
Wellness & Morale Program: This program send basic items such as clothing, food, water, and health and hygiene supplies to Stand Down Events and homeless shelters around the country. The program is currently up more than 35% from last year.
BaRN: Since the program launched in October 2013, DVNF has helped more than 86 veterans. To see the impact this program has had on the lives of veterans, take a look at http://www.dvnf.org/have-you-been-helped-by-dvnf/.

8. Redesigned DVNF’s Website:

The face of an organization is its website, and DVNF needed a big time facelift! We have now launched a new website to make it more manageable, more aesthetic, and just better overall.

We also added new services on the website to help people use our website as their own personal resource for what they are looking for. Veterans can now find some basic benefits and resources information they may find useful.

9. Developed New Relationships:

We are collaborating with a new retail startup company, G.I. Joe Coffee. They are a veteran-owned, veteran-operated company that wants their business to be of benefit to veterans.

G.I. Joe is donating money to DVNF from select bags of their coffee, which will go to programs that benefit veterans. We are proud to call them a friend and corporate sponsor and are excited about the possibilities of this relationship.

We have also embarked on an important project with the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh. Under the leadership of Dr. Rory Cooper, HERL has done work and research that has directly impacted countless numbers of disabled veterans. When I heard that HERL needed a new piece of manufacturing equipment to further their development of state of the art wheelchairs and other adaptive devices, I told Dr. Cooper that he could count on DVNF.

Our goal is to raise $50,000 for HERL so they can continue improving the quality of life for so many people.

10. Gold Sponsor for the Marine Corps Trials, DVNF provided:

300 Hygiene Kits
300 Sheets & Pillow Cases (Bedding)
300 Athletic Towels
Gift Cards totaling $10,000
Final total: More than $30,000

It has been a fast-paced and lively 6 months at DVNF. I feel that we are now on track to becoming one of the most trusted names in helping the men and women who have served in our armed forces.

I am committed to making DVNF accountable in every aspect of its business. I truly look forward to the next 6 months, and beyond!

Thank you,

Joseph VanFonda (SgtMaj Ret.)
CEO, DVNF

 

Military Appreciation Month – Roy E.

May is Military Appreciation Month, and DVNF encourages everyone to reflect on how important the men and women who have served have been to our safety and freedom. And thanks to your support, we have been able to help so many veterans overcome challenges they often face after leaving the military.

This month, as part of how much we appreciate your commitment to helping veterans, we want to send the actual words of veterans whose lives you have impacted!

Roy E. – 70% Disabled U.S. Army Veteran

RoyE

“The Disabled Veterans National Foundation truly cares about the military veterans. This was very evident from the first contact I had with this organization. The person that assisted me with my case was Mary Moore. I felt like this organization really cared because Mary personally reached out to me spent the time and fully explained the process and everything that should be done clearly.

“Also appreciated was the service each time I called in, was able to get Ms. Moore on the phone, or got a quick response. I am very grateful for this organization and the help they were able to provide with my rent. I was going through a financial hardship due to hospital visits and this organization helped me when other organizations did not so I am very grateful for this. This organization really went above and beyond to provide great customer service and assistance and I thank them for their support.”

In honor of Military Appreciation Month, we encourage you to take part in our effort to help more veterans just like Roy!

A Project That Can Help Change the World

As mentioned in our post about Clarence, the young veteran with traumatic brain injury, DVNF is working with the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), to raise money for a new piece of equipment they really need.

Please view this presentation for more information on the amazing work that Dr. Rory Cooper and his team at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories are doing for disabled veterans.

This is your opportunity to contribute to a project that not only helps disabled veterans, but also empowers them, employs them, and allows them to advocate for others with disabilities!

 

As a reminder, if you donate to this project, every single penny you donate goes directly to purchase this equipment for HERL! Please share this post on your social media pages so we can get the word out!

 

DVNF Offers Comments, Condolences on Fort Hood Tragedy

WASHINGTON, DC – April 3, 2014 – The Disabled Veterans National Foundation (www.dvnf.org), a nonprofit veterans service organization that focuses on helping men and women who serve and return home wounded or sick after defending our safety and our freedom, is offering its condolences to the victims of the Fort Hood tragedy, which occurred late Wednesday evening.

Joseph VanFonda (SgtMaj Ret.), CEO of DVNF, offered his statements on the tragic circumstances:

What happened Wednesday night at Fort Hood was upsetting, unsettling, and disheartening. Many reports have identified the gunman as a service member seeking mental health treatment at Fort Hood.

This tragedy is a sad reminder that our service members have been through a great deal, and many happen to struggle to mentally cope with the circumstances they experienced in combat. However, I think it is extremely important to emphasize that situations like this are the exception, and not the norm.

All of us at DVNF send our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the victims. We as a nation should feel a heavy sadness fall on our hearts at this moment, and we hope that we can take collective steps to address the needs of service members properly to prevent situations like Wednesday night’s tragedy.

DVNF has recently underlined the importance for all veterans undergoing crisis to reach out for help. The organization urges any veteran with thoughts of suicide or any mental distress to immediately seek treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, or to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

For more, go to www.dvnf.org.