11/28/2011 11:54 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2012

Plays Well With Others?

In the midst of today's epic congressional gridlock with its potentially disastrous impacts on the well being of our entire country, Monday brought a bright spot; President Obama signed into law the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. This legislation will assist veterans in landing the jobs they need. It extends job training opportunities, provides tax incentives for firms that hire veterans, and facilitates the transition from military service to careers. It was a rare example of putting aside partisan squabbling and turf warfare to affirm the sacred bond we have with our veterans, and to translate this into meaningful action. Why is action for the common good so rare?

We hear a lot these days about the importance of public-private partnerships. But in reality these are neither common nor easy to accomplish. Many who have wrestled in the trenches on the home front, working to create real change in the way we care for our veterans and families, have bumped up against what is referred to as "stove piping." Care is delivered in silos and most agencies and their staff "stay in their own lane." There are of course advantages to knowing one's mission, sticking to it, and perfecting our particular services. But the failure to truly collaborate -- not simply lip service or window dressing but partnering that includes joint program development and delivery, staffing and resources -- results not only in redundancy but in a kind of sterility.

A few years ago the Chief of Psychiatry at a major health service invited me in to talk. He said, "Joe, some patients come in for our services but they don't stay for treatment. What have you learned with the Coming Home Project? The very act of asking the question conveyed a rare openness that brought me up short. I replied, "There needs to be a 'there' there. Something to connect to." Troops come home to a community, not a set of isolated services.

Genuine collaboration requires putting aside the need to do it all by myself in order to reap all the benefits. In these tough economic times, the idea that it's all a zero-sum game seems so true, it undermines even the noblest collaborative intentions. But in reality, the ideal of "Joining Forces" is not just desirable; in our intimately interconnected world, it is a necessity for the health and well being of our service members, veterans, and their families and providers. It is a necessity for our country, for the international community, for the survival of our planet -- for all the communities to which we belong, and which sustain us.

Joining forces requires putting aside the fear that equates collaborative accomplishment with weakness. It requires putting aside the skewed logic that "I must be lacking since I was unable to do it myself". I've observed that there is sometimes a stigma at play within organizations about partnering (read "needing" assistance) that is in inverse proportion to how much it is talked about. This hidden organizational stigma can be just as powerful as the stigma so many service members struggle with about asking for help. 
How can we help our service members, veterans and their families reconnect if our services and how we provide them are not connected?

Why should it take disaster or tragedy to jolt us into the realization that we're all in this together, that none of us can do it by ourselves? Service members, veterans and their families know about interdependence without being told. A fellow spouse or parent you can depend on is as much a lifesaver as the buddy in your unit who has your back. Why is it such a challenge to play well together? A prestigious university program recently asked a group gathered how the department could help. I suggested bringing key decision makers from DoD, VA, major corporations, and proven innovative community-based non-profits together in a mutually supportive environment and encouraging them to muster up the intestinal fortitude to develop collaborative agreements that not only sanction partnering, but require it. There is no operational manual for making partnerships actually happen, despite many organizations whose mission is just that. Real partnering can be professionally risky. Innovators are sometimes realistically afraid of getting "dinged," of getting in trouble for collaborating. Unfortunately "Stay in your own lane," is not just a slogan; in some systems it can be a survival strategy.

The good news is that any link in this chain -- DoD, VA, corporations, community-based non-profits, and the public at large -- can move to change the game itself. And in some quarters in veteran services the game is changing. The passage of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act is one example.

There is a "force" in Joining Forces. Real power to change lives. At our recent Coming Home™ Equine-assisted wellness workshop, we heard a cute slogan that packs a critical message. The day was incredible, watching veterans and support staff alike open up like blossoms by engaging with a different species, by participating in the relational field these remarkable animals and we humans create. At the end of the day, as we were finishing our debrief, someone said, "May the horse be with you."