VetsWork: Lessons from the Washington State Veterans Conservation Corps

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Well well well… Whos the little guy now? Haha it’s still me but I at least got to speak up for us little people to some who have the power to change and effect how legislation is made for U.S. Veterans. I was recently asked to speak at the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) (http://www.ncsl.org/) in Seattle; specifically I spoke to the Task Force on Military and Veteran Affairs (http://www.ncsl.org/ncsl-in-dc/task-forces/task-force-on-military-and-veterans-affairs.aspx).

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Let’s see, who was there??? There was (I won’t use their names just because it seems cooler) : The Program Director for the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program, A couple Major Generals (I was seeing stars!!!), five state senators, 25 people whose first name is “Honorable”, 12 State Representatives, several state majority WHIP’s, and more high dollar suits than in Donald Trump’s collection.

I think you get it…

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I was way out classed, (if you don’t think so look at the agenda … yes that is my name on the same agenda as the 22nd United States Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates) but what I lack in class I make up for in expertise, experience, intelligence, diligence, and working with and for veterans every day whom are facing issues these suits have the chance to help with greatly. You see that picture above^? That was the opening slide to my presentation but it just said the title of our presentation “From Military Service to Green Service”. Although I was in a nice new suit they got a bead on me straight away.

Oh yeah the room I was giving the presentation in was, well… just look at the view…

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Okay, so why was I there? Well the Mt. Adams VetsWork position I have held for close to two years now at the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs as the Veterans Conservation Corps (http://www.dva.wa.gov/benefits/veterans-conservation-corps-vetcorps) Intern Coordinator. I work on the program we have with the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), South Sound Prairies Program (https://www.facebook.com/southsoundprairies or http://www.southsoundprairies.org/ ).

Whew that’s a lot of titles… I do like my titles hehe.

This program was one of the first Sentinel Landscapes designated by the Department of Defense and NCSL heard about the great things we are doing with both Veterans and Environmental restoration. They wanted us to talk about the whole program. So I was the last to talk but I do believe I took up most of the time. Around 15 minutes and I won’t bore you like my last blog and just have you read my whole spiel, but I will let you know I spent a good week writing it. These are some of the highlights.

I started off by talking about how “this program is very personal to me because I was just recently an unemployed veteran with a bachelor’s degree just like 20% of the veterans who enter the VCC program.” Then about the veterans I work with, “some are getting adjusted to living in doors, some of the veterans are working on their Master’s thesis. And although every veteran is different in our program, I always strive to find ways to help them become more successful. Many employment programs for veterans concentrate heavily on job placement and these programs are great for some veterans, but for many, job placement is only a piece of the puzzle. At the VCC we take a holistic approach to each veteran providing individual insight and opportunities.”  Then “The environmental work the veterans engage in is meant as an opportunity to connect to a new mission but many times it is simply a tool the VCC uses to get veterans to confront the hard issues they may be going through. Sometimes we look at it metaphorically where by removing invasive and detrimental plant species from fragile ecosystems the veterans are also removing these things from themselves and revealing the natural state beneath.”

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Next was mostly programmatic information about how the VCC recruits, supports, and coordinates with other partners. Somewhat boring stuff to be putting into a blog but was very useful information for this kind of presentation. Then I talked a bit about the kinds of supports we hook the veterans into such as “Behavioral Health Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Trumatic Brain Injury (TBI) program, Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program, the Veterans Innovation Program, the Veterans Stewardship Fund, the County Veterans Assistance Fund, the Vet Corps, King County Veterans Program, WorkSource, Veterans Service Officers, Medical Claims, the Federal VA, Supportive Services for Veterans and Families, Rally Point Six and the list goes on.” And talking about other benefits the VCC program has for interns such as participation in workshops which include: Resume Writing, Job searching skills, Networking , Federal and State Application Process, Mock interviews, Ecological Restoration, Botany, Invasive species, Aquatic systems, Native Seed production, and Prairie Science. Additionally, every VCC intern engages the public in volunteering opportunities such as the creation of a Community Edible Hedge in Olympia, and Creation of a veteran’s farm at the Orting Soldiers home.

Overall I really enjoyed this oportunity and I would have put more of my feelings and emotion into this but I had to acknowladge that I am working for a state govenrment so I did not want to bite the hand that feeds me so to speak. But I did leave them with this message “The overarching point is that most workplaces are not equipped to deal with veterans whom are dealing with PTSD, TBI, or Military Sexual Trauma (MST). In the VCC it doesn’t matter the level of professional or personal skills the veterans have when they enter, during their time with us we expose them to opportunities to increase the capacity for them to be successful by the time they exit. This success is not able to happen with just an organization like the VCC, it is only possible with the collaboration with organizations like the CNLM. If you truly want to help veterans and your natural resources in kind, please take home this lesson of collaboration because giving a veteran a job does not equal successful veteran transition. It is born out of understanding, patience, training, opportunity, and in my opinion contributing to the communities the veterans sacrificed themselves for in military service.

As the VCC says “Any country worth defending, is worth preserving.”

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