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Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. Headshot

Our Responsibility to Veterans

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This year as we celebrate Veterans Day and honor the men, women, and families who serve our nation, we should think about how we as a society can move beyond the parades and beyond the recognition that war affects returning troops and their families. We must each take more personal responsibility to ensure that those who come home to our communities, our places of work or worship, and our neighborhoods, receive the support and opportunities we would want for ourselves and for our loved ones.

My organization, Give an Hour, recently hosted a Town Hall meeting in Norfolk, Va., to discuss the work we have done over the past two and a half years to coordinate efforts and facilitate collaboration among organizations focused on providing support to the military and veteran community. Several stakeholders, active duty service members, veterans, and family members shared their experiences and perspectives on what has been accomplished and what remains to be done in their community. Virginia's Secretary of Veterans Affairs spoke about all of the efforts and programs provided at the state level, and audience members expressed concerns about loved ones and unmet needs in their community.

For nearly three years Give an Hour has been mapping resources, identifying gaps, and facilitating meetings, as well as implementing events in Norfolk and Fayetteville, N.C. -- demonstration sites we launched in early 2011. We have repeatedly observed the importance of collaboration and coordination, and we have experienced the power of a collective effort.

Our work has been challenging and we have learned so much. Organizations and individuals genuinely want to support those who come home from war and their families, but creating a comprehensive and integrated system of care takes time and requires a sustained commitment by many. To succeed in effectively organizing a community around those in need, compassionate and dedicated leaders are needed who will follow up and follow through with actions that actually make a difference in the lives of those we serve. Unfortunately, in any given community, the leaders who step up to serve on yet another working group or committee tend to be overworked and under-resourced. They give what they can, but more could be done if they had resources to direct. In addition, turf issues among organizations and agencies exist as all are vying for resources and validation. Whether we call them "silos" or "lanes," breaking these divisions down and encouraging communication between groups is difficult. It requires a shared vision and an agreed upon mission.

Fortunately, we have been successful in identifying and harnessing community leaders, military family members, and concerned citizens who have embraced the approach and rolled up their sleeves for the long haul. And service members, veterans, and military families have benefitted. We are proud to serve, but clearly much more work remains to be done for our nation's military before we can rest.

The Town Hall event provided an opportunity for those who have been doing this important work to share the lessons they have learned. It gave community members who did not know about the effort in their community the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns. It was moving to hear stories that confirmed the importance of the work and the potential of the initiative. The mood was upbeat and hopeful as together we explored the path forward.

But as I listened to the community leaders speak about the importance of a coordinated effort, and as I heard community members raise concerns about the struggles their loved ones face coming home, I was struck by a powerful realization. Although many have worked tirelessly over the past 12 years to ensure that those coming home from the post-9/11 conflicts have the opportunities they need and the support they deserve, we have yet to really move the conversation forward on a national level, on a collective level. Clearly individuals and families have been served in communities across the country as a result of the efforts of many excellent organizations -- including ours. But it seems that in every community I visit, at nearly every meeting I attend, the topics are the same and we begin the conversation at the same point.

Here is an analogy that may help illustrate the point. Today in America we take the concept of recycling for granted. We all know what the triangular sign on the bottom of plastic containers means; we use different buckets to recycle newspapers, glass, and aluminum; we reuse towels in hotels; and we turn lights off as we leave rooms. In addition, we no longer need gatherings at schools or in communities to discuss the importance of conserving resources or saving energy. Our children are growing up with a clear understanding of what it means for a building or home to be "green," and many of us now use "paperless" methods to pay our bills.

It would be very unusual if a state or local official in any community in the country began a meeting today by raising the question of whether it makes sense to recycle plastic containers and paper products. We don't need to be educated, and we don't need to be convinced. Conservation and recycling are now part of our collective consciousness: we understand the rationale, we agree with the principle, and we engage in the behavior. But it wasn't always so. It has only been in the last 20 to 30 years that we as a nation have adopted the common sense practices that are now commonplace.

What if we collectively understood and agreed with the importance of ensuring that all who serve our country must return to our communities with the opportunities and services they need to lead the lives they deserve? What if we turned that understanding and belief into action in every community and neighborhood? What if we each took personal responsibility for doing our part to ensure our businesses offer jobs, our universities offer support, and our communities offer opportunities? What if we all became more comfortable with talking about mental health so that every service member coming home was comfortable seeking care--to address the understandable consequences of war and to optimize healthy functioning? And what if every military family member could count on friends and neighbors to provide help during deployments and reintegration without having to ask?

This type of collective effort would do more than provide the necessary support to those who defend and protect us. It would enrich the lives of everyone who takes the time to provide a hand to those who serve. And it would strengthen our communities by forming bonds and building relationships.

So here is my request -- as the head of a national organization that provides critical mental health support to those who serve and their families and as the daughter of a WWII veteran. Take personal responsibility for determining how veterans in your community are doing. How can you really know how your coworker's or neighbor's transition home is going if you don't ask? It doesn't take much to start a conversation that could lead to a friendship that might change your life -- a relationship that could be of tremendous value to someone who has sacrificed so much for all of us.