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?

An Inspirational Visit to a New England Veterans Shelter

Last week, the staff of Disabled Veterans National Foundation had the opportunity to go to Boston and visit the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV). As long time partners, DVNF and NECHV have teamed up to help hundreds of veterans in need in the New England area.

DVNF recently supplied the shelter with many items such as clothing, snack food, soap, lotion and many other needed items. These items are crucial to the wellbeing of these veterans, as well as to the success of the center.

NECHV is a wonderful organization that helps homeless veterans get back on their feet. Many of these veterans have endured difficult post-military lives coping with poverty, family issues, mental health problems and substance abuse. Among the veterans we visited, a few were eager to talk with DVNF.

Grady (left) continues to help fellow veterans in need.

Grady (left) continues to help fellow veterans in need.

Grady, an Army veteran and former resident of the shelter, is now an employee, giving back to the veterans that he can empathize with.  A big part of Grady’s job is to make sure that the veterans at the center fully utilize the clothing store*, which DVNF has helped to keep stocked over the years.

(*It should be noted that the “clothing store” is what NECHV calls their supply of items that are given to the veterans at the shelter.)

“When veterans walk into the store, they are always grateful for the items that DVNF has been able to send,” Grady told us. “Without these items, many of them would not have clothes to wear. No veteran should be left behind.”

Grady also said that he believes every veteran should have a place to rest his head at night and is thankful that he has the opportunity to show veterans that there is a safe place for them.

Another veteran we spoke with was Jamie. Jamie is an honorably discharged U.S Navy Veteran who is currently a resident at NECHV. Throughout the last couple of years he has overcome many obstacles such as two surgeries, a divorce and alcohol addiction. When asked about his time at the center, he replied, “The center has created a sparkle in my heart. When I came in, I knew something special was here.”

DVNF program coordinator, Ashley poses for a picture with Jamie (right).

DVNF program coordinator, Ashley poses for a picture with Jamie (right).

During his stay at the center, Jamie has created a job for himself. He works in the shelter’s clothing store and sorts the items that are delivered. When he is in the clothing store, he said that he gets to see the expressions on other veterans’ faces, and that they are so thankful for the items DVNF sent.  Not only was he appreciative of the items DVNF was able to send, but was also happy we were able to come to the center and speak with everyone.

One of the last veterans we spoke with was Richard. Richard is an honorably discharged Vietnam veteran and is a current resident at the Center. After serving in the Vietnam War Richard mentioned that he provided services to help other veterans, such as working with local offices.

Ashley talks with Richard (right), a Vietnam Veteran.

Ashley talks with Richard (right), a Vietnam Veteran.

Richard also expressed his gratitude for the items that DVNF has been able to send. He told us that when he shops at the Center’s store, everyone is so excited about the items and it gives veterans a boost of self-esteem.

These are just a few of the great people we were able to speak with at NECHV. Understandably, there were many more veterans who were not as comfortable with us telling their stories as Grady, Jamie and Richard. These individuals have led difficult lives. It  is hard to really understand unless you have experienced it.

When you meet veterans like Grady, everyone should take comfort in knowing that this individual–once a soldier, turned homeless–was able to overcome the greatest of odds. He could have left the shelter and moved on with his life, but instead, he chose to make a living serving the people whose difficulties he understands.

Though DVNF is always committed to serving veterans, opportunities like these, to spend time in a veteran’s world and hear of his triumphs and tragedies, are truly humbling experiences.

This is a great example that shows how your support can be paid forward exponentially!

Disabled Veterans National Foundation Introduces New Executive Director

JoeGraphic

The Disabled Veterans National Foundation is pleased to announce its new Executive Director, Sergeant Major (Ret.) Joseph VanFonda.

Sgt. Maj. VanFonda, a 27-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps, was recently tapped by the DVNF Board of Directors to carry the young organization into the future, and prepare for new generations of veterans returning home.

DVNF President, Precilla Wilkewitz, offered a statement on the hiring of VanFonda:

“Sgt. Maj. VanFonda is not only a decorated, combat veteran, but he has also been an active force in the care and advocacy of wounded and injured troops during his time as the Wounded Warrior Regimental Sergeant Major of the Marines.

“The DVNF Board chose VanFonda to lead DVNF because he is a knowledgeable, well-respected leader in the veterans community. His strong management skills and experience working with nonprofit organizations in the past makes him an ideal individual to carry DVNF to the forefront of assisting veterans. Despite the growing pains DVNF has experienced, VanFonda has already shown that he is serious about a civilian career devoted to the needs of fellow veterans.”

VanFonda has already expressed his vision for DVNF. He plans to announce a new core concept of operation for the organization. The upcoming initiative will aim to be a complete resource for disabled veterans in need of assistance. He is preparing the organization for big changes that will make it more effective in its service to veterans, streamlining operations, and expanding reach.

“I am honored to be a part of this growing organization,” said VanFonda. “We have a small, but dedicated staff that works extremely hard, a supportive base of donors, and an overall structure primed for success in becoming a one-stop resource for veterans; I am here to shore up that structure, and build up the foundation. These men and women who have fought for us are in need, and I have every intention of helping them in every way possible.”

Sgt. Maj. VanFonda expects a busy fall for DVNF, and hopes to make strides in the services DVNF offers veterans. He also expressed his desire to establish more accountable practices and procedures with the organization, and vows that transparency is crucial to the success of DVNF.

Upon hearing of VanFonda’s new civilian role, a former colleague commented, “I had the privilege of working with SGTMAJ [VanFonda] several years ago.  I know SGTMAJ to be genuinely focused on taking care of military members from all branches and their families.  He is definitely the right man for the job!”

Sign Up For Part 2 of Vet Empowerment Webinar!

August 21, The Science of Reinvigorating Your Vet Power.

In this economy, employers want warriors who happen to be civilians, not more civilians who don’t know how to be warriors. The key to strengthening your vet power and equity, therefore, is not achieved by converting soldiers to civilians, but through enlivening your warrior spirit to succeed in the civilian world. For this, we rely on the emerging science of the mind to affect improved attitude and performance. Mental mastery and emotion regulation have origins in the military with breakthrough developments occurring in sports psychology, positive psychology, integrative medicine, and now research into near death experiences. Join us as Frank Campanaro and Jeff Garton discuss the science of how to enliven your spirit so your body can soar through these challenging times.   

We still have open spots for this week so make sure you register today! https://dvnf.clickwebinar.com/Science_of_Your_Vet_Power/register

This webinar is a can’t-miss, so please SHARE this post and spread the word to veterans who can benefit from this free webinar!

For more info, check out our website! http://www.dvnf.org/veterans-programs/veterans-employment-webinar/

Veteran Stories- Bruce

Bruce N.

Bruce

Life after military service is often a strenuous transition, especially when entering the workforce. Bruce, a combat veteran of the Army, made the transition effectively during a strong economic bubble, but when that bubble burst, things began to sour. He lost his job and entered a new combat zone –finding employment.

“I had an interview with a bank. I thought the interview went well and since I was referred by an employee that I used to work with, I thought I had a good possibility of getting the job,” said Bruce.

Unfortunately, that interview coincided with Standard & Poor’s downgrading the U.S. credit rating, which resulted in a hiring freeze. Bruce was now faced with a financial crisis of his own, and that’s when he turned to DVNF.

“Words cannot express the depth of my gratitude to everyone at the Disabled Veterans National Foundation. When I opened your letter that said you had granted my request for assistance –I was moved to tears…I’ve got to tell you, it takes a lot to touch a combat Vet right in the heart like that!”

DVNF provided Bruce with a grant to help him make a mortgage payment until he was able to find a roommate to help negate the costs.