Guest Blog: Make It Count

By Student Veterans Association President and CEO, D. Wayne Robinson.

As you settle into the new semester, make it count by lending a helping hand

20140817_SVASeattle2014-62[1]By the time you’re reading this, classes have started up on college campuses around the country and the semester is in full swing. The scene is much the same as in years previous: syllabi have been handed out and summarily discarded, students justify ignoring the professor with a PowerPoint presentation they’ll wait to open until the night before the final, and the lecture halls have stratified themselves into the barely conscious in back, and overly alert and eager in the front.

You may notice one difference, however. Around campus and in among the mixed enthusiasm in the classroom are a handful of veterans. You may also notice that that handful is just a little bit larger than the few you spotted last semester, and the one before. This is no coincidence, and it isn’t unique to your campus.

Since the attacks of September 11 2001, close to 3 million veterans have served in our armed forces[1], and all will soon have returned to their homes and communities. Of those, roughly a third have been and are expected to take advantage of their GI Bill™ benefits[2]. That’s a lot of degree-seeking veterans, and chances are, they’ll end up being your partner on a group project, or the guy who holds open the lecture hall door for you.

With the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, student veterans have their pick of any public institution nationwide, as long as they take advantage of their benefits and enroll within three years of service separation.  This has dramatically broadened their educational options, which means that the handful you encounter now will soon fill out more of the classrooms around campus.

SVA-Leadership-Conference-San-Diego-20140809-289[1]As the presence of this population grows, so too does the need for on-campus, veteran-focused resources. We at SVA stress the importance of peer-based support through our ground-up chapter structure employed on 1,100 campuses nationwide (and growing), and projects such as our VetCenter Initiative. While camaraderie and shared experience is indispensable to the long-term success of student veterans, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Some of these veterans will come with wounds both visible and invisible, with internal struggles and physical barriers, but all will need you to go that extra mile.

These struggles and disabilities look different for each veteran, and often are not visible. This can be aggravated when environmental barriers and a lack of on-campus supports prevent physical, academic, and social access to veterans who aren’t always aware of their disabilities. Add intensive military training that inhibits self-care and negative stereotypes into the mix, and the formula for failure is complete. With a bit of mindfulness, however, equal access need no longer be accommodated.

A truly veteran-supportive campus is one where both familiar faces with familiar experiences can be counted upon to empathize, and unfamiliar faces with vastly different backgrounds are willing to strive for understanding and cooperation. A kind word, a friendly nod, or a heartfelt handshake can speak volumes to a struggling student veteran.

The same can be said of the campus’ administration. Support services provided in a non-stigmatizing, encompassing manner can make a world of difference. “The key to engagement lies with positioning support services as part of a team effort for all students to achieve success, not as a remedial effort for individuals expected to fail,” says The NASPA Foundation, in a study[3] demonstrating that the content of service programs matter just as much as the delivery.

With backing from peers, and a welcoming student body and accommodating administration, student veterans have the tools to make sure they have the same opportunity to hang their prohibitively expensive diploma in a $14 frame as everyone else. So, whether it’s on the way to class, cramming in the library, or grabbing some lunch in the dining hall, make your semester count by lending a hand to a student veteran.

For more information on our programs and initiatives, or to find a chapter near you, please visit http://www.studentveterans.org.

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?

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!

13 Important Resources for Veterans’ Health Needs

On behalf of DVNF, I want to wish all a happy New Year! I know that times are tough for many, and I believe it is important that every veteran should know about resources that are available to them.

So let’s kick of the New Year with some valuable information on programs and services that are available through the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). In this post, I have included the VA’s top 13 links for veteran services.

As DVNF’S CEO, I think it is important for veterans to know what types of services are out there. That’s why we can use your help in spreading the word about these services to veterans. So please read and share!

Semper Fi
Joe VanFonda (SgtMaj Ret)
CEO/DVNF

Here is a quick list of links to the many programs available to our Veterans. If you know a Veteran, we hope you will print out this list (pdf) and give it to them.

  • It may be a homeless Vet you pass on the street every day — you can suggest they take the list to a public library computer to learn what VA has to help them.
  • It may be a young Vet recently returning from a combat zone, who is not aware of the benefits he or she is entitled to.

There are many potential opportunities for you to help Veterans make the connection to the services VA has for them, benefits they have earned! In addition to the doctors and nurses who provide our Vets with high-quality health care, VHA has many programs to help Vets reach their optimal health. 

Veterans!  Here are 13 of the top links for VA services. Use these health support services to maintain your physical and mental wellness:

Health Benefits
www.va.gov/healthbenefits
Start here to learn what VA health benefits you are elligible for and apply for care.
Helpful Phone Numbers
Health Benefits: 877-222-VETS (8387)
Other VA Benefits: 800-827-1000
Homeless Services: 877-424-3838
Compensated Work Therapy
www.cwt.va.gov
A vocational rehabilitation program to match and support work ready veterans in competitive jobs.
Disease Prevention
www.prevention.va.gov
Advocating for health promotion, disease prevention, and health education for our nation’s Veterans.
Geriatrics & Extended Care
www.va.gov/geriatrics
Geriatric and extended care services for Veterans including non-institutional and institutional options.
Homeless Services
www.va.gov/homeless
To end Veteran homelessness within the next five years, VA offers a variety of resources, programs and benefits to assist Veterans who are homeless.
Mental Health
www.mentalhealth.va.gov
Maintaining and improving the health and well-being of Veterans through excellence in health care, social services, education, and research.
MyHealtheVet
www.myhealth.va.gov
Anywhere, anytime Internet access to VA health care information and services.
National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
www.ptsd.va.gov
VA’s center of excellence for research and education on the prevention, understanding and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Readjustment Counseling (Vet Centers)
www.vetcenter.va.gov
Offers services to Veterans and their families to aid their successful transition from military to civilian life.
Rural Health
www.ruralhealth.va.gov
Improving access and quality of care for Veterans living in rural areas.
Substance Abuse Programs
www.mentalhealth.va.gov/substanceabuse.asp
Treatments addressing problems related to substance use, from unhealthy use of alcohol to life-threatening addictions.
Veterans Crisis Line
veteranscrisisline.net
The Veterans Crisis Line (Dial 1-800-273-8255 and press 1) is a toll-free, confidential phone support line that connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders.
Women Veterans Health Care
www.womenshealth.va.gov
Implementing positive changes in providing care for all women Veterans.