by Kristen Holway
"Taking an oath has created a situation where vets have lost their place in line."
These were the opening remarks of Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, Director of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs, at the second annual Military Families and Veterans Action Summit hosted by Islandwood earlier this month. The summit, which was convened by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA), brought together military, government, nonprofit, business and philanthropic leaders to establish shared outcomes and work plans around employment, education, outdoor recreation therapy, and the myriad supports military families, active duty service members and veterans need to thrive. Philanthropy Northwest members JPMorgan Chase & Co., The Boeing Company, The Medina Foundation, and Schultz Family Foundation attended the summit; some of these same corporations and foundations led the way by pledging millions over the next five years to support military families and veterans as part of the White House Joining Forces Initiative.
I have to admit that Alfie's statement kicked me in the gut. Last year, my 26 year old niece enlisted in the US Navy. Her reasons for joining were not uncommon. She's athletic, loyal and hard-working, but cannot afford to attend college to become a paramedic. When she joined the Navy she was aware that -- apart from the obvious college tuition benefits -– this experience could offer her the opportunity to cultivate a sense of perseverance, personal discipline and leadership, and a commitment to unflagging team-work. But these notions of incredible personal growth seem almost Pollyannaish to me now as I contemplate the harsh reality my niece *could* face in three years when she tries to apply the skills she's learning as an aviation armament specialist to civilian life. Alfie's words made me realize -- on a deeply personal level -- that we have not made good on our promise to take care of our veterans when they return from service.
So, What Can You Do?
1. Address barriers to employment
In her remarks at the summit, Senator Murray stated that one of our most critical calls to action is to figure out how to reduce barriers to employment by leveraging the leadership and technical skills our service members so often espouse. “We absolutely must address the need for good stable jobs and transitional supports.” Reintegration into civilian life is extremely difficult for many vets and their families. According to Colonel James P. Isenhower, III, director of warrior and family support, Joint Chiefs of Staff, some of the key challenges are that “Reintegration is not scheduled for you. There’s no organizational system guiding you, no set duration. And the technical skills as well as the values learned in the military –- such as comradery, purpose, being part of something larger and subordination of self –- don’t always translate well into the private sector” as veterans search for employment.
2. Create conditions for a "warm hand over"
According to Col. Isenhower, successful reintegration requires a “warm hand over” so veterans and their families are guided through the process of navigating the job market, connecting with their communities, completing a degree, securing stable housing and accessing critical legal, financial, family and mental health services. Isenhower suggests that four conditions must exist in order to support a warm hand over for veterans:
- Tight integration both across and within military and nonprofit support organizations
- Links to policy makers
- Networked communication
- Public private partnerships
3. Build connections and capacity
It was a privilege to participate in a summit where so many individuals representing diverse perspectives and strategies all had a genuine commitment to wading through the swampy, messy work of pooling resources and ideas and a collective passion for sharing the responsibility to nurture and support Washington’s veterans, service members and their families.
Many of us who have embraced partnership as a strategy know that the complex work of systems-building isn't for the faint of heart. There's bloodletting, oppressive egos, communication breakdowns and periodic bouts of confusion about who is doing what, where and to what end. The work requires a heavy investment of time, a high tolerance for ambiguity and patience for the forming, storming and norming phases of development.
The summit reaffirmed my belief that deep partnership delivers results. Funders have an incredibly valuable role to play in creating the conditions for healthy collaborations. Philanthropy can leverage its power and influence to: connect grantees with each other; connect research, evaluations and grantee insight to policy makers; and build the advocacy capacity of on-the-ground leaders so they can effectively inform federal, state and local officials of the issues veterans and their families face.
4. Shift the conversation on mental health
One of the most powerful moments for me occurred during the outdoor recreation work group session. Josh Brandon -- an army infantry officer from 2002 to 2012, veteran of three combat tours in Iraq, recipient of a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars, and current military organizer for the Sierra Club -- opened the session with a raw accounting of his personal struggle with post-traumatic stress and trauamatic brain injury. He told the story of how mountaineering literally saved his life, allowing him to slowly unpack the “rucksack” of near-death and traumatic experiences he accumulated throughout his service.
Josh led the group through a thoughtful conversation on potential recommendations to Governor Inslee on how to better connect vets to the natural environment. “The natural environment provides an amazing opportunity to connect vets with healing, therapy, purpose and comradery. Unfortunately, rigorous quantitative studies have yet to 'prove' what so many vets have felt." As he continued to guide the group through policy recommendations, one Air Force reservist asked Josh to change his language. "I don't like the word 'therapy' -- it connotes that someone is flawed."
Josh patiently listened to his peer and calmly responded, "But it is therapy... and we have to be comfortable bringing the mental health conversation into the mainstream if we want to make progress."
5. Recognize the magnitude
The rapid drawdown of troops, according to Senator Murray, is a “defining moment in our history as a state and a pivotal point post 9/11 for our country.” To put this statement in context we should take a look at state demographics. Washington State is home to six major military installations and 19 minor installations. The estimated economic impact of these installations is over $28.5 billion. Washington ranks sixth in the nation in terms of the number of active duty military, with over 69,000 military personnel and 19,000 reservists serving. Approximately 40% of Washington's population is serving in the military, a veteran, or has a family member who is. Taking a broader view, our six-state region is home to more than 1,300,000 veterans and 104,000 active duty military personnel. This population will continue to grow as we continue to draw down and chances are -- even if you are not explicitly a "military/veterans funder" -- your funded programs will directly touch a veteran, dependent or active duty servicemember.
6. Talk to other funders
Connect with your peers through Philanthropy Northwest. Many corporate members have launched their own job-skills/transitional programming and provide access to low-cost services. Private and community foundations are increasingly supporting one-stop resource centers, community conversations, and national models for public-private partnerships and community support that seek to streamline services. We can help you connect with other members in order to share lessons and practices for effectively supporting veterans and their families.
I'm a member of a military family and my deep hope is that the sense of honor and respect I feel for my niece, for all service members, is no longer met with judgement, fear, doubt and resistence. I want to shift the conversation away from "Why in the world did she enlist? How the heck is she going to transition from being an aircraft armament specialist to college when she's 31?" to "She's brave - and I trust the skills and values she learns will prove beneficial to her life and career." Our Philanthropy Northwest members and the group of women and men from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, RallyPoint6, Direct Technology, Sierra Club, Workforce Snohomish, WDVA, the Veterans Conservation Corps, Pierce College District, Edmonds Community College, and Islandwood (among many others) are restoring my faith that this is possible.
Graphic illustration by: Steven Wright