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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VetsWork: “Community and Farming. Going back to our roots.”

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On March 26th I participated in the Ground Operations event in Olympia. Looking back on the event I feel more than honored to have been asked to speak and participate in a panel after the screening of a documentary that exemplifies some of the most pressing issues facing America.

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The night started with the County Commissioner setting up the format of the night and then he brought on the project coordinator, Mark Oravsky. Mark shared with us his (all too common) veteran transition story of battling with issues of depression, drug abuse, and suicidal tendencies. His story is not uncommon considering 22 veterans do the unspeakable act of ending their glorious lives every day! He also shared with us his experience with “professionals” in dealing with veteran transitions and how they filled him with pills that left him a shell of a person.

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Mark Oravsky, Picture by Jo Arlow

Fortunately for us Mark is an amazingly strong individual who found himself through non-traditional transitioning methods. His methods of transition are not hard to find. Hell, they are not even new. They are as old as human history itself. Community and Farming. That’s all it takes. We simply must go back to our roots. We are all humans and we all need humans to survive. This simple metric has lead Mark to be an active community leader and advocate. He truly is an inspirational person that I feel honored to work shoulder to shoulder with.

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Photo By Jo Arlow

Mark used his experiences to bring the community together in such a way that we could have an intelligent conversation about these pressing issues. He brought in local experts who also have found innovative forms of strengthening our community and sustainability.

The panel included individuals with a proven track record who have dedicated their lives to this issue and he felt I was worthy of being on this prestigious panel. During the panel I was sitting next to Lourdes E. Alvarado Ramos (Alfie) who is the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) Director.

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Alfie speaking and me being nervous – Photo by Jo Arlo

So there I was waiting for my turn to speak, fiddling with my loosely written speech and after several people who had amazing and thoughtful things to say. I was starting to wonder why I was up there. Alfie goes up and, like a pro and wonderful veteran advocate that she is, speaks about how the WDVA is finding all kinds of new ways to approach transitioning veterans. Now it was my turn. I started off telling the crowd I was nervous and I laughed… nervously of course. Then I just took a deep breath and took the opportunity Mark had granted me and let loose all the things I have seen and experienced working as the VetsWork VCC Intern Coordinator.

I started by saying something like this:
“My name is Matthew West and I am a transitioning Navy veteran. I am a father and husband. I am an environmental steward. I am a first generation college grad. I am an AmeriCorps volunteer. I am a VetsWork Intern. I am a WDVA and Center for Natural Lands Management Intern and I am the Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC) South Sound Internship Coordinator” (Whew…I took a deep breath and laughed a little with the crowd). “I find myself here representing all of these organizations with the common thread of serving veterans and/or the environment. Without any one of these organizations I fear I would be unemployed or employed but undervalued.” (Dead silence fell over the crowd…I let it linger).

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“I know this is true because I work with veterans whom are consistently undervalued by American society. For the past two days I have had the opportunity to meet and interview veterans for VCC internships. These internships are designed as non-traditional transition methods which have been created from the teachings of the late John Beal.

John Beal was a Vietnam Veteran who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress, drug and alcohol abuse, and after his health started deteriorating he was told by doctors that he had 5-6 months to live.” (Again I let that sink, in.)

“Around that time Beal found a refrigerator that was dumped into Hamm Creek (near his home) which is a tributary to the Duwamish River, one of the most polluted rivers in the country. He went home, grabbed a shovel, dug out the fridge and in the process he found a mission that gave his life purpose and meaning.” (I held back tears at this point and after a second to gather myself I told them the good news.)

“John continued his work in restoring Hamm creek and other local waterways for another 25 years.” (I’m not sure if there really was any clapping at this point, but in my mind there was a great response to this information.) “He found that by healing the earth he was in fact was healing himself. This basic premise is what we do at the VCC. By offering veterans a chance to heal the earth I have witnessed incredible transitions of incredible people doing incredible work.

Which reminds me…

Any country worth defending is worth preserving.

Thank you.”

At this point there was, in fact, a very loud and standing applause. I turned around to find Alfi trying to tell me how great my speech was but couldn’t really hear her though the clapping. They were still clapping well after I sat down.

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Photo By Jo Arlow

After the event ended I was filled with energy and excitement. I am so grateful that there are so many people that truly wish to help the community. Every person involved is a hero in my book. I know there is much work to be done, but with organizations like GRuB, Growing Veterans, Ground Operations, Rainier Therapeutic Riding, OlyFloat, the Eastside Urban Farm and Garden Center, WDVA, Enterprise for Equity, Veterans Conservation Corps, and of course the Mt. Adams Institute VetsWork program, we will begin the process of inherently changing the culture of community to one that keeps humans connected to the Earth. In return, the Earth will continue to feed us, even heal our hidden wounds and we will never let a single person be left behind.

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umYXRPDg81A[/youtube]