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Those Who Serve Abroad Should Be Able to Find Work at Home

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On May 7, 2012 the Robin Hood Foundation, the largest private funder of anti-poverty programs, sponsored an important gathering aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. The highlight was an interview with Salvatore Giunta, veteran of the war in Afghanistan and Medal of Honor Recipient, conducted by Jon Stewart. Stewart asked whether veterans are hesitant to receive attention and help. Giunta responded, "The military is not an 'I' organization; it is a 'We' organization. The few times you hear someone in the military say 'I' it usually goes something to the tune of, 'I screwed up.' That's when 'I' is used, when you're taking personal accountability for your actions." Stewart, ever the wisecracker, commented, "It's so interesting, because many of the people (here) are in the financial industry, and it's the same ethos, in many regards..." As the audience laughed, Stewart added, "Maybe we should just hire you guys." More laughter and applause, as Giunta responded, "Absolutely."

This was the core metaphor for the day: What are the contributions veterans can make to employers, communities, and to our society as a whole? Why should our companies, communities and its institutions hire, embrace, understand and care for our veterans and their families?

Paul Rieckhoff, director of IAVA and one of the panelists, commented that this event should have happened 10 years ago. That's true, but gatherings like this challenge the fragmented, redundant, territorial and often dysfunctional system of veteran care in this country. In bringing together representatives from the military, the corporate arena, mental health, academia, the media, community-based non-profits and local and national government, the summit was a commendable effort to make real the "Joining Forces" ideal put forth by Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden. The lesson is that in our interconnected world, all of us, individuals and organizations, public and private, can no longer be fixed on "I." We all have to learn to play well with others and collaborate substantively in the proverbial sandbox.

The lunch panel, moderated by Brian Williams, brought together the mayors of Jacksonville, Augusta and Houston who shared specific local stories of outside the box public-private partnerships that are making a difference in the lives of veterans and families. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new Joining Forces collaboration among his administration, the Robin Hood Foundation that will provide priority job placement services for veterans at the City's Workforce 1 centers, a new center solely for veterans, and a website to help veterans navigate city services. Bloomberg said, "Our partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation is designed to help our City's veterans build better lives, find jobs and homes, and help our City improve the services they count on." In another silo-crossing partnership, the Robin Hood Foundation is collaborating with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University and the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company to provide veteran-focused resources for employers throughout New York City and across the country.

Tom Brokaw moderated the opening panel with Admiral Mike Mullen, Senator Patti Murray, Wes Moore, Shaun Donovan (U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) and Nancy Berglass, (Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund). Brokaw spoke about the need to create a connective tissue, a welcoming societal network that brings civilians and veterans together, promotes understanding and recognition, and just might help unite our polarized nation. Katie Couric moderated a panel of corporate leaders and non-profits that helping connect vets to jobs. Willie Geist chaired a discussion of the struggles and opportunities in transitioning back to civilian life with non-profit leaders and the Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning at the VA, Raul Perea-Henze. Ashley Bunce, Director of Public Awareness and Education at the Bob Woodruff Foundation spoke movingly from personal experience of the challenges that family care providers face in of caring for wounded warriors. The celebrity presence continued as Gayle King moderated the closing panel on the mental health needs of returning troops, veterans and their families, featuring retired Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General Peter Chiarelli, and mental health experts.

Here are some of the main themes from the day:

1. The need to identify best practices and programs, and to require proven outcome data or "metrics" so that investments made in innovative care will be effective and efficient.

2. The need to recognize the strengths that returning troops and veterans bring to the table, as well as their problems. And their desire to continue to serve.

3. Urgent need to improve existing transition assistance programs, which Mike Mullen and others called "inadequate at best."

4. Address the "woefully inadequate" scale of funding for non-profit programs and the urgent need to help community-based groups develop needed infrastructure to scale up proven, needed, innovative practices that are not available through government programs.

5. The need for companies recruit and hire not just seasoned returning junior officers but also enlisted service members and other veterans.

6. The need for translating military experience into civilian job competencies.

7. The need for veterans, service members and their families on one hand, and civilians and civilian families on the other, to come together in mutual respect, support and understanding. And to develop the necessary "cross-cultural competency."

8. The need for peer networks so that returning home can be a "shared experience." Mullen and others echoed the need for a cohort, what another vet called "the next team I want to jump into."

9. The urgent need to "find" vets, since so many do not want to self-identify. Brian Williams called this "spreading the net."

10. Reducing isolation in general and in rural settings in articular, while helping vets connect to services.

In my next blog I will critically examine these issues, explore some hidden obstacles to realizing these goals, and suggest what can be done.

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