Vets helping vets

Former service members lead local alternatives to federal health, work programs



A federal audit has revealed Austin's military hospital might be suffering from the same lengthy wait times that sparked a national controversy.



Three Central Texas Veterans Affairs Department medical centers in early June were flagged for potentially excessive wait times and scheduling misconduct.



The review of veterans outpatient hospitals came as a result of alleged attempts by VA hospitals nationwide to hide how long veterans were waiting for medical services. An initial audit revealed up to 13 percent of all VA claims made may have faced significant delays.



The scandal has also brought to light alternatives to VA services. Veterans in the public and private sectors are pitching in to help their own throughout Austin and the state.



Hands-on help



Eligible veterans, their dependents and survivors can skip the VA and go straight to the Texas Veterans Commission or the Travis County Veterans Service Office to file any medical claims or other benefits requests. Ollie Pope, a 22-year Travis County Veterans Service officer, said more staff is needed to effectively assist Austin-area veterans.



"The VA doesn't have enough resources to meet the demand, and we're no different," Pope said. "We work with what we have and keep our help and mission in mind."



Pope called the VA scandal an opportunity to improve veteran wait times at federal clinics. Veterans must make appointments once every two years to remain enrolled in the VA's five-year insurance system, he said. An evaluation garners each veteran a percentage score, which determines how much care and financial assistance the VA will provide.



As concern increases over the mental well-being of returning service members, Pope recommends veterans also turn to VA alternatives such as peer groups and counseling centers that cater to mental health issues. One such group, the Military Veterans Peer Network, is a statewide network that connects veterans regardless of discharge status with other service members who experienced and recovered from military-related mental illnesses.



"You can't sit in an office with a program and then wait for all the veterans to come," said Christopher Araujo, who coordinates the network's Austin-area efforts. "It doesn't work that way. You have to have boots on the ground in the community engaging veterans in conversation."



Araujo benefited from the same peer support when treating his post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a common mental illness diagnosed in returning Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans.



"We isolate ourselves and feel like nobody else understands what we're going through," he said.



Nonmilitary life stresses sometimes contribute to PTSD after a service member returns home from deployment, Araujo said. Joblessness can especially trigger symptoms. One of every 10 Austin-area homeless residents identify as a veteran, according to a 2014 quality-of-life survey conducted in Austin.



The biggest challenge, Araujo said, is overcoming the negative connotations associated with PTSD.



"Employers are hesitant when they find out someone may have PTSD because I don't think a lot of people understand PTSD," he said. "It doesn't mean someone is going to act out violently. That is a misconception a lot of people have from the shootings at Fort Hood. That's not how PTSD manifests itself."



Gainful employment



Reserve members make up more than half of all service members diagnosed with PTSD, suggesting that external life factors may contribute to mental health instability, said Bob Gear of the Texas Workforce Commission. The retired 20-year military veteran leads the commission's Texas Veterans Leadership Program, which helps veterans reacclimate to civilian life after service.



"Being employed mitigates a lot of the other [PTSD] risk factors because service members are used to structure," Gear said.



The Military Veterans Peer Network, the VA, vet centers and many Austin-based groups work with Gear and others in the Texas Workforce Commission to help veterans through a variety of programs. Veterans are very attractive workforce prospects but only if properly marketed, said Gear, who considered call center jobs and truck driver positions ideal fits for many veterans seeking entry-level positions, among other occupations.



He works with veteran employment placement groups such as the American Veterans Initiative, a service started last year by Kelly Broome, a 29-year veteran who runs ARCpoint Labs of Austin, a drug-testing lab off I-35 in South Austin.



"I know folks whose lives are planned around their next VA appointment," said Broome, explaining how VA scheduling confines can make it difficult for veterans to be flexible enough for full-time employment.



Broome helps veterans translate skills gained during service into attributes that will appeal to potential employers. Veterans with transferrable experience, for example, can fill the need for commercial truck drivers.



"There are a lot of companies that want to hire veterans," he said, explaining the challenge has been translating military skills into employable attributes.



Veterans are attractive employees because they tend to show up on time, pass drug tests, work on heavy machinery, do not need supervision, are mission-oriented and can work in any environment, he said. The trick is making sure service members are prepared to enter the civilian workforce before being removed from active duty, he said.



"It's the transition to the VA where there's been some challenges," Broome said. "That's just the nature of bureaucracy—there's no incentive to get lean."



The other challenge, he said, is that many military veterans have no college degree. However, they make up for it with prior training and hands-on skills, he said.



"Some employers will accept training in lieu of college education but at a lower level," Broome said. "If a company promotes from within, [a veteran] usually does pretty well."



Employers that hire veterans may benefit from state and federal programs that reimburse the cost of training courses. These can range from oil and gas industry jobs to positions in the medical field, he said.



"It's not the blue-collar jobs only," Broome said.



State veteran assistance programs



  • College Credit for Heroes–Veterans can earn credits for military experience to expedite transition into the Texas workforce.

  • Hazelwood Act–This exemption provides education benefits to veterans and family members.

  • Military to Civilian Occupation Translator–Translate military skills and experience into attributes ideal for civilian occupations.

  • Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans–This program develops and assists pro bono legal clinics that serve veterans who otherwise could not afford legal services.

  • Texas Veterans Leadership Program–A network helps returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans transition back to civilian life.

  • VA Appeals Assistance–The Texas Veterans Commission assists veterans with the benefit appeals process.

  • Veterans Crisis Line and mobile phone application–Available for download on most iPhone and Android devices, this app provides access to crisis hotlines and connects veterans to services and nearby peers.

  • Veterans Housing Assistance Program–Qualified Texas veterans can gain access to up to $417,000 to finance a home purchase.

  • Workforce Solutions–The Capital Area office provides job placement services, career development training and resume assistance.

  • WorkInTexas.com–This online employment website connects job seekers to jobs geared toward veterans.

  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit–Employers can receive tax incentives for hiring veterans, among other groups that historically experience unemployment.

Austin Community College veteran assistance programs



  • College Credit for Heroes–A state partnership has allowed ACC to develop streamlined criteria for awarding credit to veterans in the energy, information technology, manufacturing, advanced technology and computer technology fields.

  • Department of Labor grant–Student veterans can transfer computer programmer training into skills vital for employment in the technology workforce.

  • From Humvee to ACC Adm.–William McRaven spoke at this year's annual veterans appreciation and resource fair.

  • VetSuccess on Campus–A vocational counselor assists with veteran benefits and referrals for counseling or medical services.

  • Walmart Foundation grant–The grant enables ACC to hire a recruiting and advising specialist who works with veterans applying to health care/bioscience and information technology programs.

Military disability ratings



Each discharged veteran is evaluated for disabilities and scored from 0–100 percent. Each disability is given a percentage, and disabilities are added together in a unique formula. Results typically vary from 10 percent to 40 percent, with 30 percent being the "magic number" to qualify for assistance.



Example: Rating formula for mental disorders only



  • 0%—Diagnosed but no treatment needed

  • 10%—Mild symptoms controlled by medication

  • 30%—Increased inability to perform occupational tasks

  • 50%—Difficulty in establishing work and social relationships

  • 70%—Deficiencies in most areas; admits to contemplating suicide

  • 100%—Total occupational and social impairment

By


MOST RECENT

Photo of a hand dropping a ballot in a box
Candidates for Austin City Council District 10 face off ahead of Dec. 15 runoff

Incumbent Alison Alter and challenger Jennifer Virden are vying for the seat.

Austin City Hall (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Public safety, homelessness in Austin take center stage in final forum before District 6 runoff vote

Three days ahead of the first day of early voting for the Austin City Council District 6 runoff election, a final public debate was mostly focused on issues of public safety.

Campuses in Austin ISD will be closes to in-person learning the week after Thanksgiving break. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
All Austin ISD classes to be held online through Dec. 4

The district will also be providing free COVID-19 tests to staff and families Dec. 2-4.

Bicycles for public use are docked at a MetroBike station on Lake Austin Boulevard. Austin's $460 million Proposition B will include funding for additional bicycle lanes through the city. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Breaking down Austin's $460 million bond for bike lanes, trails, sidewalks and more

The bond will fun a bridge over Pleasant Valley Road connecting two ends of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike trail, among other improvements.

There is no data to support whether homelessness has increased since March, according to Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, but ECHO executive director Matt Mollica said anecdotally, he believes the pandemic, job loss and lack of federal rent relief has led to more people locally experiencing homelessness. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
Nonprofits fighting to end homelessness in Austin say COVID-19 measures have created new challenges

Nonprofits have seen a greater need from Austin’s homeless community—for food, clothing, health care and hygiene resources—since March, and they are scrambling to fill those gaps.

Local health leaders are urging caution ahead of Thanksgiving. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Ahead of Thanksgiving, Travis County health officials urge caution

Austin Public Health leaders say gatherings with people outside one's household held indoors and without masks pose the greatest risk.

Sold sign
Central Austin continues trend of rising home prices in recent report

The monthly median housing price in October for Central Austin climbed to $625,000.

Harini Logan, 10, won the 66th annual Express-News Spelling Bee at the University of Texas at San Antonio downtown campus on March 17, 2019. For 2021, the event is slated to be held in March at the Brauntex Performing Arts Theatre in New Braunfels. (Photo by Jerry Lara, courtesy the San Antonio Express News)
New Braunfels to host regional spelling bee and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from Central Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan for the state Nov. 23 for a vaccine he said could be available as soon as December. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

The vaccine could start being distributed "as early as next month," according to a Nov. 23 news release.

P. Terry’s Burger Stand is expected to open its long-awaited Pflugerville location this January. (Courtesy P. Terry's Burger Stand)
P. Terry's to open in Pflugerville in January and more Central Texas news

Read the latest Central Texas business and community news.

The Bridge at Turtle Creek apartment complex will provide more than 300 affordable units upon completion in 2022. (Rendering courtesy Journeyman Group)
Austin development updates: Apartments could replace two Rainey Street bars, 307 affordable housing units coming to South First Street area

A 569-foot apartment complex could replace Javelina and Craft Bar. Meanwhile, development continues in the St. Elmo area.

Falafel—served in a pita or without one—is TLV's most ordered dish. (Courtesy TLV)
Still open for takeout, TLV is the lone restaurant operating in Fareground food hall

"We will make it through these tough times," said chef Berty Richter.