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.

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.