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Guest Blog: HERL Trains Vets in Manufacturing

 

Dr. Rory Cooper (left), Director of HERL, talking with a veteran in his program.

We at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) – a partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System – take great pride in our work with Veterans. Our efforts are aimed at improving every aspect of their lives and the lives of their families, whether through programs to assist with the transition from the military to enrollment in STEM-related fields of study, or research that will improve their level of satisfaction and participation in everyday life activities. Continue reading “Guest Blog: HERL Trains Vets in Manufacturing”

Guest Blog: Vets Explore Self-Expression Through Art

By: Kristen Hughes
Director of Arts in Healing
The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

Support from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation has enabled Arts in Healing to provide 10-12 hours per week of visual art, music, creative writing, drama and dance to veterans served through the Robley Rex VA Medical Center and to test-drive the concept for a veteran/civilian cooperative called “Warrior’s Heart Community.”

A community member viewing artwork created by veterans in Warriors’ Heart Community pilot project

Warrior’s Heart Community recently completed a highly successful 9 week pilot project, based on steps outlined in The Warrior’s Return, by Dr. Ed Tick of Soldier’s Heart. The process involved veterans sharing stories about their combat experiences and ensuing struggles with civilians who listened non-judgmentally and without attempting to fix or offer advice, serving as Sacred Witnesses to the wounding, and creating a space for healing. In this atmosphere of trust, respect, and empathy, participants explored how all of humanity is affected by war. It was a powerful and profound experience for all.  Over 75% of participants have signed on to help refine the process over the winter so that the community can grow by engaging a new group of veterans and civilian “witnesses” in Spring 2016.

In November, Arts in Healing also partnered with Robley Rex VA Medical Center to present local veteran art at an opening of the From War to Home national photo exhibit.  At the event, art was displayed from Arts in Healing groups in the Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit, Athena’s Sisters-a female veterans’ sisterhood, Heroes Create-a Peer Support dialogue group, and Warriors’ Heart Community.

Nathan Sims, Peer Support Specialist of Heroes Create! sharing artwork created by veterans in the group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Many Vets, Misconduct Discharges A Sentence to Homelessness

It’s no secret that veterans often find themselves at a disadvantage when exiting the military. Financial difficulty, family stress, and uncertainty about job prospects can often be a formula for disaster for these veterans, and many wind up homeless.

But then there are other veterans who become victims of their own irresponsibility, and are branded as such for years to come.

According to the L09WA-D14 Photo6A Times, a study among Post-9/11 VA patients from 2001 to 2011 showed that around 5.6 percent were discharged from the military for misconduct. However, that small percentage accounted for over 28 percent of veterans who became homeless in their first year after leaving the military.

Note that this does not include service members with a “dishonorable” discharge, as they are not eligible for VA services. The group surveyed here was discharged for misconduct – usually drug, alcohol, or unauthorized absence offenses – and are usually given an “other than honorable” or “general” label on their DD-214, which still qualifies for some VA services.

The percentage of veterans discharged honorably who became homeless within the first year was roughly 1 percent.

But the question is: is being discharged from the military without an “honorable” status an indictment on the person’s true character? Or is the code assigned to their discharge symptomatic of a preexisting issue?

There’s no universal truth to either question. But for these service members who are tagged with chronic misconduct, I believe that this is only a microcosm of what is more likely to happen in their future.

More often than not, economically disadvantaged people are much more prone to substance abuse than their counterparts. This sets up veterans in this category negatively after their military service, especially since an unexpected discharge from the military is the same as a loss of employment.

Even service members who are preparing for life after the military often struggle in the transition, so it certainly makes sense that those who are dismissed for misconduct will be even more likely to become homeless.

Without arguing the merits of one’s discharge, how can the VA and DoD work to combat this trend among troubled service members?

There is no simple answer to this question, but if we really want to end veteran homelessness, we need to be more proactive than reactive. A plan to combat these issues needs to be formulated so that we don’t add to the 50,000 veterans without a home.

Guest Blog: Vets Rehabilitate in the Great Outdoors

By: Sandra Budak
Executive Director
Honoring Our Veterans

Honoring Our Veterans is committed to helping our nation’s veterans heal. We are very fortunate to have the Disabled Veterans National Foundation partner with us in t20150618_081152his endeavor. We truly believe we are making a difference in these warriors’ lives.

This June, seven combat wounded veterans from across the country enjoyed water sports recreation in stunning Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Without the Foundation’s generous support, we would not be able to offer these rehabilitative therapy programs.

With beautiful lakes at the base of the spectacular Teton Range and a nationally designated scenic river, Jackson Hole is the ideal location for water sports recreation. The activities we offer wounded veterans during this session strengthen physical, cognitive, emotional, and social functioning. We offer these programs to wounded veterans at no charge; airfare, transportation, lodging, activities, equipment and meals are all paid for with the help of the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.

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We were fortunate enough to witness first-hand just how impactful our recreational therapy can be. For one of our participants, the session marked the first time in ten years that he had left his room for something other than a medical appointment. Since returning home, we are overjoyed to hear that he is starting to get outside again, spending the Fourth of July with friends.

Here is what some of our wounded veteran participants have to say:

“Not once since I have been here have I thought about suicide.” 

“I was comfortable for the first time in years.” 

“I was able to express my feelings without being ashamed of myself.” 

“I was able to feel normal and to actually laugh and feel happy again.” 

“Coming out here to Jackson Hole, Wyoming is an experience I will never forget. After spending 31 years wearing a military uniform, I now understand what I was fighting for. What HOV has put together in what I have come to call “God’s Country” is absolutely spectacular.” 20150623_114929

“I found something that I could say I “Love” once again.” 

“I had good sound sleep that I haven’t had in ten years.” 

Thanks again, Disabled Veterans National Foundation, for making our programs possible!

Guest Blog: 3 Booming Tech Careers for Disabled Veterans

By Rick Kuehn, CEO at GruntRoll; exited the Marines  in 2010 as a Corporal.

One of the many challenges facing disabled Veterans is finding suitable employment. Veterans suffering from PTSD often find difficulty in working in tight-quartered, high-energy environments like the standard American workplace. As a result, some Veterans are turning towards work-from-home professions to overcome the incompatibility some face with a traditional office environment. The youngest generation of combat Veterans are blessed with the distinct advantage of having grown up with technology, and possess a natural affinity to it. These fields are so in-demand that many of the positions aren’t being filled. In a generation of unemployed college graduates, you can find a lucrative career working from home without stepping foot into a classroom.

1) Software Developer

The Software Developer is currently the number one most in-demand profession in the United States, according to Forbes. In fact, this job is so incredibly in-demand you can often start at $25/hour with basic knowledge. Those with several years of experience will regularly find themselves earning much higher rates, especially as contractors. The exact role is a Software Developer varies from job-to-job, and project-to-project. In February, you could be contributing to a new system designed to cache search queries, but in March you could be programming an iPhone app that finds military discounts.

To get started in this profession, you’re going to need a passion for technology and the ability to think critically. If you’re the kind of person who recreationally enjoys problem-solving, there’s a good chance you’ll not only make an excellent Software Developer–but you’ll be happy doing it.

2) Web Developer

So wait, we just talked about Software Developers; isn’t a Web Developer the same thing? Websites are just software that run on web servers, aren’t they?

Yes, basically. However, in practice these are two totally different professions. Those who prefer a more graphical (and less technical) aspect in their work will receive more gratification from a career in Web Development. The beauty of a career in Web Development is that you could literally build hundreds of websites for hundreds of customers without ever having to understand software. You’ll need to familiarize yourself with popular front-end graphical languages (HTML and CSS).

Successful Web Developers will utilize their choice of “Content Management System”, and gain expertise learning to build functional websites for clients by freelancing their skills. Although this field is more saturated than Software Development, there’s still a significant demand for Americans who can create websites. American businesses are becoming more hesitant to offload their needs overseas despite the obvious cost difference. Americans produce the best work, and the overseas development fad is all but come to an end for those serious about a high-quality result.

2.5) Web Software Developer

Did I just invent this job title? Not exactly. Keep in mind, we aren’t in the military and civilians don’t use numbers to identify the position they’re responsible for; civilian life can be much more complicated. A person who enjoys a mix of writing logical code and designing graphic elements will find their passion rests in deep technical understanding of web technology such as JavaScript, PHP, and C#. Web Software Developers will use the same logic as Software Developers, but produce a product which can be visible to others. Software Developers will typically spend their days creating a product which may never be visible to an end-user.

3) SEO (Search Engine Optimizer)

Imagine you’re going to Google to search the healthiest dog food for your Golden Retriever. You enter your search, and some results appear. 85% of clicks will go into the first three results. 1900 people search “healthy dog food” every month, and many of them are potentially buyers for dog food. Out of those first three results, odds are good all three of those results will give you the answer you’re looking for–and maybe even sell you some food for your dog. If you owned an online pet store, how can you get your website into those first three results?

For many companies, the solution is hiring a Search Engine Optimizer.

This field became popular within the last decade since the emergence of Google. Google accounts for 80% of search traffic around the world. This blatantly contradicts my anecdotal evidence which would be more like 99.9% (because I’m pretty saw I caught my elderly relatives using Bing once).

Google uses over 200 factors which plug into a top-secret ranking algorithm they’ll absolutely never share with the public. However, the two proven most significant factors include relevant content and links from other websites. Becoming an SEO doesn’t involve a great deal of technical ability, though you’ll have to learn some technical jargon. Instead, those who possess a natural creative ability to communicate with others will find the greatest success in Search Engine Optimization.

Despite all these terrific career opportunities to work for yourself, it’s like the news is a broken album stuck on the same track: “you need a degree to get a job”. Yet, the same track is repeating the unemployment rates for college graduates. The answer to this is simple: find a career that’s in demand, and isn’t easily attainable for others. No one advising against college. Any of these fields would be greatly supplemented by a degree. Instead, focus on finding a skill that’s in-demand–and become awesome at it.

Guest Blog: Make it Count

By the Student Veterans of America President and CEO, D. Wayne Robinson.

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

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.

20140817_SVASeattle2014-62[1]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 www.studentveterans.org.

Clarence: An Inspirational Story on Overcoming Traumatic Brain Injury

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.

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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.

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.

5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Women Vets

This March, DVNF is celebrating Women’s History Month. Their service was overlooked for decades, but they have been an integral force in our military’s operations.

We cannot thank them enough for all they have done, and want them to know how truly important they are, and have always been, to the operation of the U.S. Military.

So, here are 5 things you probably didn’t know about women veterans!

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Yuba-Sutter Stand Down- Day 2

We arrived at the grassy basin once again on Friday, the weather identical to Thursday. The difference today though, the population of veterans and volunteers had more than doubled! We could tell immediately that we were going to have a very active day. More tents and RV’s had been set up, most for healthcare services. The Red Cross also sent in a truck and representatives were handing out various good to the vets and their families.

The strange part about it was that this event on the second day almost seemed like base camp in a war zone. In a way, it sort of was—just a very different type of war. This was a war on homelessness, a crusade to remember the forgotten, a battle to provide. The much needed reinforcements had arrived. The wounds of the warriors were not plainly visible, but look close enough, and you could see them as clear as the northern California sun. That is why so many volunteers showed up—to tend to the wounds that had been left untreated for so very long.

I had the chance to speak with a VA social worker who was in attendance that day, named Mike Miracle. Mike was a very pleasant individual with a calming demeanor. Mike had served in this capacity for 37 years with the Army and the VA. He told me something that really had never occurred to me. He said that he still has clients from WWII and Korea that cope with PTSD in some capacity. Can you imagine having to cope with troubling memories for 60+ years? It makes you respect these men and women even more.

The second day was much warmer than the first, but it didn’t stop the massive show of support. I met several veterans who were overwhelmed with gratitude from the event. Lanny Montgomery, a Vietnam veteran was all smiles when I spoke to him. Lanny started a PTSD support group for veterans in the area who couldn’t seem to find the help they were looking for. He said that simply discussing the common problems that PTSD causes, amongst a group of people who know exactly how you are suffering, can make such a big difference. He also mentioned that it was actually his group that helped to pave the way for such Stand Down events in the area, and that it flattering to know that DVNF had come all the way from DC to help out.

As the day began to wind down, I caught a glimpse of something across the basin and became interested. People kept approaching this gentleman who was wearing a red blazer, and then he would stop and take a picture with them. Assuming he was some sort of celebrity I began to walk closer to the tent he was under. I soon realized that this man was much older than anyone else I had seen at the Stand Down. Then, I figured out who he was. His name was Lenard Yates—one of the original Tuskegee Airmen! He was kind enough to let me take a picture of him, as well as another veteran who was just as eager to meet Mr. Yates as I was. What a great way to end the day.

Lenard Yates, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen

We left Marysville overwhelmed at how much effort was put into this Stand Down. We were also pleased knowing that veterans in this part of California are in good hands thanks to the appreciative and compassionate people that make up the community.

Yuba-Sutter Veterans Stand Down – Day 1

We arrived at the event in Riverfront Park Thursday morning and everyone was in high gear. Tents set up, people bustling about every which way. The location at the park was perfect. All tents were set up in a shallow basin adjacent to the river. The grass, a rich green with oak trees scattered sparsely across the plot—not overwhelming the area, but providing an ideal amount of shade. Naturally, for a late August day in northern California, the sun was bright, and there was not a cloud in the sky.

The sounds of the leaves faintly brushing around in the trees and voices filling the air, only occasionally interrupted by the sounds of a Harley’s deep, perpetual groaning. The motorcycles, as you can imagine, were abundant, for these were predominantly Veterans of Vietnam, “Eternal Riders” as they call themselves.

Three whole days in late August were dedicated solely for the benefit of veterans in California. The providers for this Stand Down ran the gamut: local mental health groups, the American Legion, local salons, VA mobile vet center, Salvation Army, massage therapists, and many others were present. Recology, the waste services company for the Marysville area even provided the food for the first day! A local salon gave free haircuts for two whole days as well. Talk about a show of support!

As I stood on the edge of the basin observing the layout of the event, a peculiar smell hit me. When I discovered the source, I was rather intrigued. It was coming from the American Indian Veterans Association (AIVA) tent, where they were burning sage. I became interested in the organization. I spoke at length with one of its representatives, Pedro Molina, or “Chief Mo” as he was known. He told me about AIVA and its outreach and advocacy work on behalf of Native American veterans. He informed me that California has roughly 20,000 Native American Veterans and that AIVA’s goal was to reach out to all of them, especially in the rural areas and let them know of the benefits they are entitled to.

Chief Mo

Chief Mo was serious about the organization’s mission, but he was certainly not without humor. He was a member of the Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, which was not recognized by the government until 1979. He went on to tell me about his being drafted in 1970, saying, “When I got drafted I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony—I can’t win a game of bingo to save my life, but I got drafted  number three!” The laughs continued as he told me he began his Army career as an airborne cook. “Basically, I was jumping out of a plane with a stove on my back,” he joked.

Another unique organization caught my attention. The Healing Light Institute was right next to the women’s health tent that DVNF sponsored for the event. I was fortunate enough to speak to the director of the organization, Donna Arz. She started what was called the Forgotten Soldier program as a way to treat veterans through alternative therapy, such as guided imagery, therapeutic massage, holistic nutrition, and grief counseling, to name a few of their services. Donna and her associate, April Anderson, told me how common it is for veterans with PTSD to turn to alternative therapy when medication and other common treatments are not successful. It was at that point they told me about the suicide prevention program they have, and how they saved a decorated Marine from ending his own life. I was in awe when I watched the news report about it.

I also had the chance to speak with Mike Nichols, the President of Yuba Sutter Stand Down. Mike himself is a Vietnam veteran who works daily to help his fellow veterans. He said that 638 veterans attended the Stand Down in 2011, and that they were expecting even more this year. Mike was able to paint a picture of the veteran mindset for me. I asked him why he thought that there were so many homeless Vietnam veterans. He stated the obvious facts about how unappreciated Vietnam vets were upon their return, but then he elaborated. As he put it, most of these veterans are homeless because they choose to be. They had been cast aside in society long ago, and it is something that stays with them.

When Mike said this, I began to look around at all the veterans in attendance. Long gray hair, scraggly beards, cigarettes permanently fixated upon their lips, and draped in black leather, these men were true warriors. Not just because of their time on the field of battle, but because they have been fighting their whole lives, and still do today. Most that you might greet will give you a brusque “hello,” and move on, cautious of your motives. These are a tough bunch of men, who have never truly seemed to give any sort of trust to anyone in society that wasn’t one of their own.

As April Anderson said to me, so many of these vets have been carrying a heavy burden their whole lives. The hardened expressions on the leathery faces of these veterans tell a story that is difficult to comprehend for those of us who will never experience what they have. Their experience and the difficulty of their lives cannot be perceived by an outsider, which is why they band together in homogenous subcultures—a fraternity of the forgotten, trusting only one another.

Though this may be their perception, it is not the reality. While most won’t understand the intricacies of their struggles, there were hundreds of civilians in Marysville that day that were there to remember, honor, apologize, thank, and pay homage to the men and women who were shown a disrespect that cannot be forgiven.

As Congressman John Garamendi stated in his opening remarks for the event, “We thank them for all they have done, and it is our responsibility as citizens to serve them.” That was the purpose of the Stand Down, to serve the veterans that fell through the cracks.