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.

  •–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



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