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Helping veterans recover their dignity and their rights

Lacey Veterans’ Hub

My first experience in a courtroom was filled with anxiety due to the punitive behavior of a judge who was harsh with everyone present. At the second hearing, after learning I was a veteran, the same judge completely flipped to a supportive role. This was comforting but also confusing.

Knowing that many veterans have similar experiences, I was pleased to learn a progressive court system exists to help vets recover their dignity and protect their rights. To see firsthand what the Veterans Assistance Fund specialist had described, I visited the Veterans Court (supported by Thurston County sales tax).

I became anxious waiting until it was time to enter the courtroom and the feeling didn’t subside until the Judge began to talk with the Veteran about their experiences through the process of recovery. I felt as if a secret had been hiding inside me and the only way to really know it existed was to break through my own negative courtroom experience. I noticed that the group of attorneys and social workers maintained a therapeutic role with the Veteran, creating a community of support, which was surreal and full of emotion. I knew immediately after court adjourned that this idea needed to be shared with the greater community.

This led me to join Lacey Veterans Services Hub, where I learned about the many services available to the Veterans community, while also navigating the Veterans health care system myself. The Hub provides vital connections in housing, health care, wellness and employment.

A VAF specialist visits with clients at the county jail every Monday to discuss the status of their discharge from service and what programs are available to help them clean their record and retain dignity. On Wednesdays, at the Thurston County Courthouse, the Mental Health/ Veterans Court serves folks whose charges meet the criteria of a mental health-related connected crime.

The program is designed to allow set up for 24 months for recovery, at which time the veteran has a graduation ceremony with all their staffers, mentors and friends. A local quilters art guild in Tacoma makes a large quilt for each veteran who graduates, and it is a very emotional journey for some of the folks. I witnessed a graduate of the court visit with a friend who was in the program for DUI and he expressed intense gratitude for the program, which helped him get back into society, start a business, and become quite successful at it. The graduate visited with the judge after session ended and I could tell the bond made through the program was everlasting for both of them.

The VAF, staffed by the county, works with veterans who are coming to the regular HUD/VASH and VHOG (Veteran Housing Option Group) meetings. Once the proper assessment is done, the individual can get assistance through the VAF, who can pay first and last month’s rent and deposit fees for a rental unit, or cover a delinquent bill.

Veterans qualify for the program if they are homeless or within 60 days of becoming homeless. This program seems to be the most crucial for veterans in transition, who have a sudden mishap with a bill, face eviction, or have a mental health concern. The baseline for qualifying is low income, which has increased 50%.

Evidence Based Practices

After researching several programs for veteran recovery (references available at olywip.org), I have found that these programs increase access to services beyond the walls of a clinic. Veterans need enough stability to navigate the healthcare system, and when unforeseen events create a vulnerable gap in quality of life, the Veterans Assistance Fund can help decrease or eliminate the financial burden of maintaining a residence. The Veterans Affairs 2018-2024 Strategic Plan for our vets is to seize opportunities in the advanced telecare markets, provide best practices by examining past programs, and groundbreaking research to ensure anticipation of cultural changes as more troops come home.

Regional studies

In one study, a holistic model was implemented alongside interpersonal and mood regulation techniques. Once the mindfulness exercises started, each veteran participated sessions of trauma-informed yoga three times a week and completed a weekly art therapy class. An important demographic in the study identified active duty personnel who are in a balance between restricted duty and ready-for-duty status. This model could work for many clients who visit the Lacey Veterans Hub.

Veterans who work through trauma need help finding meaningful work. The leadership skills, ability to be led, and consistent work ethic are the best qualities of any veteran. There are not as many solid career paths to apprenticeships and trade careers as there used to be, and that needs to change. Careers are the main need for a Veteran looking for meaningful work, and not just any job, either. Most Veterans who leave service with 15-20+ years are not looking to sit around, especially if they have stayed fit enough to last that long in a combat occupation. The EN-Abled Veteran program has a mission to provide vocational training and job placement. A sense of purpose can be nurtured by attending to the transitions of the veteran healing from trauma. Meaningful work feels good and a sense of accomplishment is achieved. Veteran experiences solidify work ethic

One factor crucial to the Veteran and their family is to work with an office of at least 30% veterans. This ratio helps keep a balance of staff who understand the needs of the many Veterans coming home from service. With this in mind, outreach programs with awareness of PTSD and other invisible wounds offer a career-minded skillset to the Veteran and their family.

When a veteran who is under stress from serving in combat comes home to a VA that doesn’t seem to be keeping up, and the veteran refuses to ask for help, we have a huge problem. Entire families can benefit from partnership programs like the Road Home, EN-Abled Veteran, and other organizations working to ensure education, mental health, and a therapeutic environment where veterans are embraced without judgement. For example, if a veteran minimizes their needs in the office or therapy visit, a family member who has been through the preparation for transition can actually speak up to keep the appointment on track. These evidence-based practices have helped many families and hold the promise that therapies help us learn to create a more resilient community.

Clayton McCrary is a student veteran in the Student Originated Studies Program with Zoltan Grossman at The Evergreen State College. He is studying psychology and art therapy as alternatives to clinical settings. References used in this article appear at olywip.org.

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