How to support veterans in ways that truly matter

Military veterans have risked their lives, given up time with family and endured physical and mental hardships. They've dedicated years, sometimes decades ensuring all Americans enjoy freedom.

You probably already recognize this great sacrifice by turning out for parades or putting up a flag. Perhaps you participate in fundraising events or donate to a local organization. And, on Veterans Day, chances are your Facebook feed is awash in supportive messages and red, white and blue.

While those things help raise awareness and needed funds, there are other immediate and tangible (but still easy) ways to support veterans. Vets face a number of challenges during their transition to civilian life — and years after — especially when it comes to employment, housing and social support. While a growing number of organizations in Orange County assist veterans, here's how you can get involved and support former service men and women and their families in ways they need it most:

  1. Say thank you
    If you see a veteran wearing a cap or T-shirt with a military logo, don't be shy about saying, "Thank you for serving," says Phil Bowers, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and resource manager for Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) at the Volunteers of America of Greater Los Angeles (VOALA), which has an Orange County outpost in Santa Ana. "It does make a difference to us," he says. "Those of us who served in Vietnam or during the Vietnam era were held and treated in low esteem, even disdained, so me hearing someone thank me for those years makes a positive impact not only on me, but also on those who overhear it."
  2. Assist with professional networking, employment and career growth
    Meaningful employment and career advancement are two of the biggest issues veterans face, says Chase Wickersham, Director of the Goodwill of Orange County Tierney Center for Veteran Services in Tustin and an Army veteran. That's why employment assistance and counseling is a focus at Tierney Center, along with helping vets find and navigate other organizations that fit specific needs.

One factor that can hold veterans back are misconceptions employers may hold, including that they're risky hires. Help set the record straight: "Anyone interested in helping a veteran should encourage their employers to look at veterans as a resource; they are experienced, hard-working individuals with leadership experience," Wickersham says.

Another issue: Because vets go from steady work and income in the military to suddenly being unemployed, many take the first job offered, even if they're overqualified. "Underemployed veterans are a challenge because in many cases their experience qualifies them for a leadership position that this first job may not develop into," he says. "Vets then find themselves wondering how to move their career forward."

Helping vets network and connect with employers, business owners and other professionals is key. The Tierney Center counsels vets and helps them network through partner organizations, such as the Veterans Business Network (VBN) of Orange County, a social organization of successful veterans, Wickersham says. "The VBN not only helps veterans make the transition into a job, it also helps mid-career veterans or underemployed veterans as they search for new opportunities."

Wickersham also mentions the benefits of veteran "employee resource groups" at large employers in the county, such as Disney and Pacific Life. "Most large companies encourage the formation of employee resource groups in order to assist and mentor employees," he says. The groups help improve retention and provide a career path within the organization, encouraging and helping vets to be successful, he adds.

  1. Help with affordable housing
    Roughly a third of vets don't have permanent housing when their military service ends, according to a report by the University of Southern California School of Social Work. Of those who do, many move in with family members or friends because they're unable to afford a place on their own.

Rental property owners can show support by allocating at least one unit to veterans, Bowers says. His and other agencies work to educate landlords about this strategy and other VA housing programs.

"Property owners can work with veterans who have evictions or poor credit history, especially those veteran households that are working with the VA or an SSVF grantee to correct past deficiencies or overcome family emergencies," Bowers says.

  1. Provide financial education
    "Many military families deal with not knowing how to budget sufficiently or build their credit and so struggle to manage their bills," says Samantha Pence, a social worker at VOALA.

Organizations like the Tierney Center and its partners provide financial counseling, coaching and other assistance to help veteran families manage their finances and gain financial stability. Individuals can also offer their own time and expertise to vets or volunteer through an organization. "There needs to be more opportunities for veterans that will help them budget long term," Pence says.

  1. Make meaningful connections
    Even if you can't provide financial expertise or affordable housing, simple social support, such as reaching out to veteran families, welcoming them to the neighborhood and including them in events goes a long way. "Some of the best ways to personally support veterans is to just be in life with them; be a friend and supporter to his or her spouse and children," Pence says. "Developing deep friendships and relationships with civilians helps create a support system as a military family takes on a new journey."

Alicia Doyle for Goodwill of Orange County

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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