Veterans need 'friendly' communities to adjust to civilian life — here's how to make it happen

Veterans need 'friendly' communities to adjust to civilian life — here's how to make it happen
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Every day, communities across the nation enthusiastically welcome their returning sons and daughters after service in the U.S. military. However, many struggle to agree on the most effective approach for helping veterans reenter the social fabric of the community. This debate often has focused on national perspectives, but the key to empowering veterans lies at the local level. Recognizing this, the Veterans Experience Office (VEO) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) established the Community Veteran Engagement Board (CVEB) initiative to facilitate collaboration among local veteran-serving organizations.

A CVEB is a community group composed of veterans, advocates, veteran-serving organizations and other civic leaders who collaborate to deliver needed services to the veteran population. More than 100 communities nationwide have established CVEBs, and they each act autonomously with minimal oversight from the VEO.

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As the initiative has grown, the VEO and America’s Warrior Partnership, a national nonprofit, saw an opportunity to further strengthen local groups by pooling each CVEB’s collective insights and sharing them nationwide. The CVEB Task Force — a group of more than 40 individuals from various CVEBs, national veteran-serving organizations and the VEO — was formed to accomplish this goal. Over the course of six months in 2018, the task force developed guidelines for improving services for veterans at the local level.

The task force’s report offers CVEBs specific guidance on addressing critical issues, and there is much that policymakers and the broader veteran-serving community can learn from these insights.

The task force identified baseline issues that communities should monitor to better understand the overall health and well-being of veterans. These are key outcome areas:

  • Outreach — Outreach programs are essential to understand veterans’ needs and guide them toward assistance;
  • Mental Health — Mental health is connected to nearly every other need that veterans face, from employment and housing to relationships and physical health;  
  • Access to health care — From understanding VA benefits to finding the right provider, health care is a concern for nearly every veteran-serving organization;

  • Suicide prevention — VA reports that 20 veterans die by suicide every day, which makes outreach and support programs essential;
  • Homelessness — VA estimates around 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, which can lead to challenges in other areas such as mental and physical health.
  • Employment — Gainful employment and economic stability are major stepping stones for veterans to achieve a better quality of life; and

  • Education — College degrees and professional certifications can lead to stable careers, and veterans often need assistance navigating GI Bill benefits.

Every community will have different priority issues, but these seven areas are essential to creating a veteran-friendly community and should be evaluated regularly to ensure veterans have access to basic resources they need.

The CVEBs are meant to fulfill a role that cannot be accomplished by any one organization on its own. Conversely, a CVEB is not meant to be a one-stop shop that handles every initiative within a community. To ensure local groups are positioned to achieve success, the task force suggests focusing on one or more of these roles:

  • Information — Serve as a central resource for veterans, their families and caregivers;
  • Coordination — Connect veterans with service providers;

  • Convening — Host meetings and events to facilitate collaboration and networking;

  • Data collection — Direct the collection and analysis of data to evaluate impact;

  • Education — Disperse resources on best practices for serving veterans; and
  • Leadership — Raise awareness and generate support for veterans.

Every community will have varying levels of resources and available capacity, so this recommended set of roles should be a starting point to guide local veteran-serving groups.

The third component of the task force’s findings stresses data-driven decisions. Each decision should be based on metrics collected from various sources, including community partners and public databases. This will ensure organizations have a firm understanding of community results and whether activities need to be realigned. There are a wide variety of available data sources, so the task force compiled a comprehensive resource guide outlining options communities can consider.

The task force was convened with CVEBs in mind, but the group’s findings are relevant to any community group. Individuals and organizations can learn more at VA.org/VE.

Tim S. McClain is chairman of the board of directors for America’s Warrior Partnership. He is a former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and active in veteran issues.