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?

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.

Clarence: An Inspirational Story on Overcoming Traumatic Brain Injury

Clarence

Clarence

Meet Clarence.

Clarence is the young veteran working at the mill machine in the photo you see above. He has been out of the military for 3 years now, having served in combat right out of high school.

Clarence is currently finishing out the Advanced Inclusive Manufacturing (AIM) program at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh. This program is one that teaches veterans like Clarence the basics of machinery, which will give them a leg up in a high-demand field.

Clarence suffered a major traumatic brain injury (TBI) during a deployment. Now he has a form of visual agnosia, in which he lacks the ability to visually recall images in his mind. He told us during our visit to the HERL lab that remembering how an object should look when he is working on a project is a challenge because his lack of visual recall.

The good news is that Clarence was hardly feeling defeated by this drawback. Actually, he was very upbeat when telling us about it. Though he can’t picture in his mind how to do something, he instead draws a map for himself as he goes that allows him to complete the task.

Clarence completed his military service at age 22. The native Texan spent time at his home in Austin, focusing on his medical treatment. He told us that while he was readjusting, he was feeling somewhat demoralized.

He said he had several friends his age who had also finished their military service, and, as he described, “did nothing but sit around and play video games, and sometimes get mixed up in drugs.”

“My options were limited in Texas,” Clarence said. “I saw so many of my friends fall into the same trap of drugs and laziness. I knew I needed to do something better than that. I was working on getting better, but never lost ambition.”

And Clarence could have fallen into that trap. He was an intelligence analyst in the military and he had a top-secret security clearance. His goal after his service ended was to enter a similar civilian post as an analyst. Unfortunately, he lost his clearance as a direct result of his brain injury. Once that happened, he wasn’t really sure what to do.

As fate would have it, the VA hospital where Clarence was getting his treatment became less accessible due to the sheer number of veterans in need of treatment. Clarence took a trip to the Pittsburgh VA for a while so he could get the specialized treatment he needed. It was there that he met Dr. Cooper.

Clarence was used to working with his hands. He told us that he grew up hunting and fishing and loved every second of it. He decided to enter the Experiential Learning for Veterans in Assistive Technology Engineering (ELeVATE) program, where he would learn the basics of machinery, and would later move on to the AIM program.

Clarence had a new outlook on things. He was capable of working machinery, and had plans of his own. Given his love of bow hunting and archery, he wanted to do something that would allow others with disabilities to enjoy that same rush that he got with a bow in his hand. He told us that his goal is to take his training from HERL and manufacture adaptive archery equipment.

IMG_4181

This is just one example of the tremendous work that Dr. Rory Cooper and his team at HERL are doing for veterans with disabilities. Not only are they training veterans in a high-demand field, but they are also teaching them coping mechanisms to overcome their own disabilities, while encouraging these veterans to take what they learn and work for the benefit of others with challenges.

DVNF has partnered with HERL to purchase a new lathe. A lathe is a basic piece of machinery that is one of the keystones of basic engineering. Many devices are made from a lathe, so it only makes sense that their lab would teach these veterans how to use a lathe.

The problem is that their lathe is a piece of World War II surplus equipment! Unlike most of the devices in their lab, this machine is anything but modern, and they told us that it is hard to teach veterans how to use it.

HERL's current lathe (top), and an example of what a lathe makes (bottom)

HERL’s current lathe (top), and an example of what a lathe makes (bottom)

This is an example of what most of the lab's equipment looks like!

This is an example of what most of the lab’s equipment looks like!

So we are going to help Dr. Rory Cooper and his team to buy a new lathe. We will give them the $50,000 necessary to purchase it, so that veterans can learn this valuable skill, and take their training on into the real world and help other veterans in need.

When you donate to this initiative, every penny will go into the purchase of this machine. In addition, your donations are tax deductible, and you will also get the satisfaction of helping veterans to learn valuable career skills, to cope with disabilities, and to advance the cause of helping others with disabilities!

Please visit this page and see how important this project is to so many people, and make your most generous donation today!

New Video: Wounded Warriors Appreciate Your Support!

DVNF recently attended the Marine Corps Trials in San Diego so we could support the wounded warrior athletes competing at the event.

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DVNF CEO, Joe VanFonda (SgtMaj Ret.) poses for a photo with a wounded warrior.

We went to the event as an outreach opportunity to interact with these wounded veterans and to let them know about our programs and services and that we have a supportive base of donors who appreciate all of their sacrifices!

DVNF provided the wounded warrior participants with care kits, towels, bedding materials and water. But that wasn’t all! We also gave $10,000 worth of Visa gift cards to express our sincere appreciation for the inspiration they provide to so many, and to also help out with any expenses during the Trials.

They seem to have appreciated this outpouring of support, and thanked both DVNF and our donors for backing their efforts in the Marine Corps Trials in this video:

Thanks to all who have contributed to DVNF and the veterans we serve! This event was so incredible that we plan to attend the Warrior Games this September in Colorado Springs. Donate today and help us to continue support these heroes!

DVNF: Veterans’ Mental Health the Most Pressing National Security Issue No One Talks About

Written by: Doug Walker

Our post-9/11 world is a frightening one. An attack of that magnitude has created an uneasy feeling among most Americans.

Fear of the unknown has a tendency to do that.

Today, national security seems to be overshadowing domestic policies. The uprisings in Syria and the Ukraine continue to strain international relations. A war in Afghanistan is winding down, and terrorist hotbeds are still thriving in the Middle East and North Africa. But, there is one domestic issue that remains a major concern that nobody is talking about. And it directly affects our future foreign policy.

It is truly disturbing that the mental health among our veterans is taking a back seat to the partisan politics that garner all the headlines. And mental health among veterans is the most critical issue that is going to affect how we operate as a nation.

A mass murder by a mentally disturbed person always sparks a gun control debate and renews partisan footholds that have crippled our nation’s ability to operate on a practical—or even functional—level. Politics aside, these tragic occasions do remind people that mental health is a major topic of discussion, as it should be.

And while everyone is entitled to their opinion, where is that fervor and outrage at the end of each day when 22 of our men and women who served in the military take their own lives? Why aren’t we discussing that?

When broken down, that is close to one veteran taking his or her life per hour.  That scares me, and should be just as alarming to you.

And many will say, “Well, these individuals voluntarily enlist, knowing that going to combat and PTSD are possible outcomes.” That sounds like a convenient explanation, but the reality is more nebulous.

A recent, massive study conducted by the Army tells a different story. The $65 million study of close to a million soldiers was eye opening. From 2004-2009 the suicide rate of deployed troops nearly doubled.

While that statistic is already unsettling, it’s the suicide rate among non-deployed service members that is the most shocking. During that time period, the suicide rate among non-deployed troops almost tripled.

Suicide infographic

Sure, we can blame the suicide rate of combat troops on post-traumatic stress. But how do we explain the surge in suicides among those who weren’t deployed?

One explanation could be that one in four soldiers has reported some form of psychiatric disorder. Another could be that around one in ten have multiple psychiatric disorders.

In fact, the study revealed that many service members already show predictors of suicidal behavior before they enlist. Conditions such as intermittent explosive disorder are good indicators of potential difficulty. The report also explained that military service has some unique stressors that can trigger mental illness.

Around a third of troops who attempted suicide did so as a result of a mental illness that developed prior to enlistment.

These findings indicate that the US Military and the Department of Veterans Affairs need to do a better job of getting treatment to those with mental illness. The military in particular needs to screen its recruits more closely before admission.

However, Americans shouldn’t just point the finger at these two entities. Some at-risk enlistees will slip through the cracks. And it is harder to get treatment to veterans who won’t acknowledge any type of mental ailment or seek help if they do recognize that something is wrong.

So, why do I say that this is a matter of a national security? Well, if some of our bravest young people are committing suicide at a higher rate than the average American, that is a nightmare scenario. This should concern our leaders to no end, because, as the study explains, mental illness is the leading cause of death among our men and women of the military.

Major depression is five times higher in soldiers as civilians. And according to an author of the study, Dr. Ronald Kessler, the suicide rate of deployed women is 300% higher than women who are not deployed.

Charles Figley, a Tulane University trauma psychologist, added that the Army is asking more of its soldiers today than in the past. He argued that this boosts the need to meet that increased demand and the need to offer more to help these men and women.

Many have stated that families of these service members don’t know what to look for when assessing the mental stability of their loved one. I would say that could be good place to start in addressing this crisis.

This report should be all over the headlines, especially since it isn’t just the active duty troops that are suffering from mental illness. And for those who are undergoing some type of psychiatric illness, it doesn’t just go away once they leave the military.

DVNF is committed to doing more to help veterans who suffer from a mental condition. We want all service members to know that no matter how tough you are, seek help when you need it!

22 veterans are killing themselves every day, and for some despicable reason, that isn’t even a blip on the radar of most people. Let’s shift the conversation, and get something done! We don’t want to have to live in a future absent of the heroes who have laid it all on the line for us.

Doug Walker is the Communications Director for the Disabled Veterans National Foundation. Contact Doug at communications@dvnf.org

Source Articles:

http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/inside-story/Insiders/2014/3/4/how-can-the-us-militarycombatmentalillness.html

http://www.thewire.com/politics/2014/03/militarys-suicide-rate-much-more-complicated-combat-stress/358796/

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/03/suicide-army-rate-soldiers-institute-health/5983545/

http://guardianlv.com/2014/03/suicide-risk-shows-before-military-service/

Newest Vet Suicide Report a Cause for Alarm

I recently read the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) most recent Suicide Data Report. After going through it a couple of times, I felt a tremendous sadness come over me.

There were many alarming and noteworthy points in the report, but the one that made me feel sick was that there have been increases in suicides among veterans aged 18-24.

This cannot continue. Our youngest veterans have undergone more than we could truly imagine. For many, their combat experiences have been plagued with tragedy, which spanned multiple deployments.

What has been much different for them in comparison with many other generations of veterans is that a lot of today’s returning troops are coming home to a tough job market in the middle of a down economy.

Now, we see in this report that they are committing suicide at a devastating rate. Actually, the spike in the suicide rate between 2009 and 2010 was absolutely unbelievable. Suicides in the male, 18-24 year-old demographic increased from 46.1 per 100,000 in 2009 to an alarming 72.6 per 100,000 in 2010.

That trend continued to increase in 2011, with 79.1 suicides per 100,000. Female veterans under 30 have also seen an increase in suicides.

However, the report also featured some relatively positive news. Male VHA users over 30 have seen a decrease in suicide rate. More significantly, VHA users with mental health conditions have also seen a decrease in suicide rate, which is a likely indicator that those getting treatment are getting the help they need.

What everyone should take from this report is that suicide amongst veterans is a very real thing. It is not some sensationalized cautionary tale. It is rather a warning to all of us that when you see someone with warning signs of suicide, do what you can to help them.

Often times, veterans do not want to acknowledge the fact that something is wrong. They want to “tough it out.” We are here to tell you that this is not a physical ailment that you can simply overcome by sheer will. It is a tragic instance in which those who do not seek treatment feel that this is their only way out.

There is help out there! If you are a veteran having thoughts of suicide, please visit http://veteranscrisisline.net, call 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or send a text message to 838255. There, you will receive confidential support.

Similarly, if you are a family member or friend of a veteran in need, do not hesitate to visit http://veteranscrisisline.net as well! They can instruct you on what to do.

VCL-CMYK

The first part, however, is recognizing the signs of crisis. The Veterans Crisis Line says you should look for these signs of crisis:

Sometimes a crisis may involve thoughts of suicide. Learn to recognize these warning signs:

  • Hopelessness, feeling like there’s no way out
  • Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
  • Feeling like there is no reason to live
  • Rage or anger
  • Engaging in risky activities without thinking
  • Increasing alcohol or drug abuse
  • Withdrawing from family and friends

The following signs require immediate attention:

  • Thinking about hurting or killing yourself
  • Looking for ways to kill yourself
  • Talking about death, dying, or suicide
  • Self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse, weapons, etc.

If you are a Veteran or know a Veteran who is experiencing any of these signs, call the Veterans Crisis Line immediately. Responders are standing by to help. There are qualified support specialists available 24 hours a day, 7-days a week, every day of the year.

We should all do our part to reach out to anyone in crisis! This is a national crisis and we all need to do what we can to help veterans so they don’t become another statistic.

So please, share this post and this information with people that you know! You may not think it matters, but it is very possible that someone you share this with could be the very person who needs it most!

Joe VanFonda (Sgt. Maj. Ret.)
CEO, DVNF