WASHINGTON -- After decades of often frustrating reliance on the massive Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans are increasingly turning homeward.
Innovative new programs are springing up at the local community level to offer veterans a slew of resources -- mental health, education, jobs. More important, many of these initiatives offer opportunities for what veterans say is the best post-combat therapy there is: plunging back into service work.
"It feels good to be giving to somebody, doing something for the community," said Connor Mallon, a 30-year-old former infantryman who was volunteering one recent Saturday, helping to mulch fruit trees at a farm outside Washington, D.C., that grows produce for a local food bank. "We are not done giving when we finish a stint in the military," he said.
Mallon is part of a service platoon formed here by the St. Louis-based nonprofit The Mission Continues as a way to connect veterans with volunteers on local service projects. Four other service platoons are already at work, in Los Angeles, Orlando, Phoenix and San Diego, and 25 more are planned across the country. The initiative is underwritten in part by Target and by Applebees, which provided volunteers for the farm work here -- and catered a meal when the work was done.
A critical piece of such volunteer service projects is drawing civilians into close collaboration with veterans, helping heal the civilian-military divide that has widened during the post-9/11 war years when less than 1 percent of Americans signed up for military service. "It's so good to see them here," said Vu Nguyen, a 27 year-old Navy veteran and the Washington platoon leader, as he surveyed the fields where veterans and civilians were bent over, harvesting kale and collard greens.
Rather than offer a one-shot work day, the platoons are meant to create a permanent, organized cadre of veterans who take on a local cause -- hunger, or homelessness, or working with at-risk youth -- and to provide veterans the structure, camaraderie and sense of purpose they found in military service.
"Along with having a tremendous impact in the community, we are resolutely focused on making sure they have a service experience that makes them feel a part of something again," said Spencer Kympton, a retired Army helicopter pilot and president of The Mission Continues.
Recruiting veterans into platoons also attempts to solve another problem, one that has bedeviled the VA: locating veterans, who may not want to be found by the government, in order to give them benefits. "Once we have them in these platoons, we can surround them with resources -- job coaches, mentors, job opportunities," said Kympton.
Finding veterans is also the focus of an innovative new initiative by Unite-Us, a hyper-local interactive website that enables veterans to find other veterans with similar problems or resources. Employers can use the site to find qualified local veterans to hire, and civilians can find ways to interact with veterans in their neighborhoods.
The need for such connections is urgent, said Taylor Justice, a retired Army infantry officer and cofounder of Unite-Us. Problems already exist for the nation's 23 million veterans, including homelessness, underemployment and physical and mental health issues, but larger problems are looming.
"We have high unemployment among vets aged 18 to 25, high suicide rates and hundreds of thousands of vets caught in the VA's disability claims backlog -- compounded by the millions of vets who will be transitioning out of the service in the next four or five years," he said. "The problem is not a lack of resources for them, but an over-abundance of resources. Google 'veterans jobs' and you get 2 million hits in a few seconds. But no one was connecting the dots."
In collaboration with Verizon, the Unite-Us site enables an Air Force veteran in, say, Iowa City, to find other Air Force veterans there who also served in Afghanistan, who are looking for good local grad-school programs in aerospace technology and who are also early-morning runners, for example.
It also might allow employers to find nearby veterans with specific skills, and could help veterans find other veterans working with nearby employers to advise them on job opportunities. It would enable a just-retired Army machine-gunner living in Brooklyn, for example, to find others with similar combat experience and discover how they managed to get the GI Bill to pay for college courses.
"Civilians can come onto our platform and offer to help a vet find a job, give them career advice or find a home in the neighborhood," said Justice.
Yet another initiative, VetCorps, has placed 64 of a planned 100 trained veteran substance-abuse counselors in communities across the country, where they work to find veterans in need and connect them with local health organizations. VetCorps is organized by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, working with the Defense Department and funded with federal grants.
While the Pentagon and the VA have their own substance-abuse programs, this initiative is aimed at the majority of active-duty, National Guard and reserve troops and veterans who do not live on or near a military installation or VA medical center.
The role of the VetCorps counselors, who are drawn from the ranks of AmeriCorps and VISTA volunteers and given specialized training, is to "get the military member or veteran or family member to the appropriate place for help," said Arthur Dean, a retired Army major general, Vietnam veteran and CEO of CADCA. VetCorps tries to keep veterans from "fall[ing] through the cracks and self-medicating and before you know it having a serious problem," he said.
Some big-government approaches are still needed, of course. The VA's GI Bill program, for instance, has paid more than $30 billion in tuition and other educational benefits to 1 million veterans and family members, and their schools, since 2009. Since its inception in 2007, the veteran and military crisis line, 1-800-273-8255, has rescued 30,000 veterans poised to take their own lives -- the equivalent of two Army combat divisions.
The VA also has ramped up its collaboration with local communities through its 151 medical centers, which increasingly partner with local government and non-profit coalitions on housing, physical and mental health, employment, criminal justice and other issues.
The VA also has intensified its local outreach to veterans through its 827 community-based outpatient clinics and 300 neighborhood vet centers across the country.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said he welcomes the rapid growth of community-based veterans initiatives. "None of us can do this on our own," he said late last week. "We're happy to have the help."