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Witness Testimony of Andy Davis, veteran, Director Saratoga County Veterans Service Agency Saratoga County, New York

Introduction:

Good afternoon, Chairwoman Buerkle, Ranking Member Michaud and Members of the Committee. Thank you for the invitation to discuss the role of community providers and faith-based organizations in helping service members transition to civilian life and the need to foster better communication, education, and collaboration between The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and these resources.    

My name is Andrew Davis, and I am currently the Director of the Saratoga County, NY Veterans Service Agency and the Founder of the Saratoga County Veterans Resource Initiative. I have been a Veterans Advocate since separating from service in 2004. I served as a United States Army Ranger for 5 years to include two tours of duty in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

Upon returning to my home in Minnesota to further my education, I was faced with my first taste of how little I knew about being a Veteran. In fact, like many of my peers, I was unsure if I even was a Veteran. Because of this, I founded a non-profit Veteran support organization on the campus of the University of Minnesota to aid returning Veterans in connecting with earned benefits and services. In later roles as a congressional staffer and Department of Defense Transition Assistance Advisor I saw firsthand the disconnect between Veterans, their families, and the systems that are intended to support them. For the past three years I have spent my career as a Veterans advocate either training accredited benefits counselors or being one myself. This has provided me a frontline view of what is lacking in outreach and networked support to our Veterans and their families.

Lastly, I am currently an enrolled patient with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) in VISN-2 and use both the Albany-Stratton Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) and the Clifton Park, NY Community Based Outreach Clinic (CBOC) regularly.

Opening Remarks:

Veterans and the ways they serve have changed significantly over the last decade, resulting in the need for changes in the way our country, in turn, serves them. The Veterans of today tend to be more geographically dispersed and more mobile than previous generations. Families and communities are affected and changed differently than ever before with multiple deployments and the unique use of the guard and reserve. Many of these individuals suffer from the lack of a “Fort New York” or central support system, making the local community even more crucial in the reintegration process.

Despite a constant bombardment of media in all forms that affords the public access to our current wars, issues facing our neighbors, friends, family members and other local Veterans are often invisible to us as communities. Add to this, a military culture that can encourage emotional toughness and self sufficiency, and we face a large potential public health problem.

Lastly, the uniqueness that makes our military and our Veterans population great, also means that there is not a one-size fits all support system that can be created nationwide. We must garner community support and use community resources to serve our Veterans and their families completely.

Accessing Traditional Veterans Resources:

Issue -

First and foremost, the population of Veterans that find their way into the VA system of care or benefits delivery system, merely by accident, is staggering. I can safely say that approximately 5-7 Veterans knock on our door weekly for some form of unrelated government service(s) to find that they are eligible for Veterans benefits because of their service to this nation. Just last week a young Marine with two tours of duty in Afghanistan appeared in my office asking for directions to the office that handles unemployment benefits. This Marine outlined, that although his home of record on his discharge stated Saratoga Springs, NY, he had no idea who his local contacts in Veterans Services were, or where he could take advantage of his 5 years of free health care from the VA. Nobody, from his pastor, to his friends and family in the community knew how to connect him to his earned benefits and services. If this Marine hadn’t knocked on the “wrong” door he would not have met with my staff to turn on his GI Bill benefits or learn where he could enroll in health care.

By all appearances, the US Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized the need for community outreach but holds their hopes in the idea that top down, one sided information will filter down to the grassroots folks at the bottom. For example, in the VISN - 2 area of upstate NY, a few competent and well trained Veterans justice coordinators have been hired and put in place. However, the operative words here are “a few Veterans justice coordinators”. These people are responsible for numerous counties and for interacting with courts, district attorney’s and law enforcement, when in fact the police officers on the beat and on our streets and highways are where the first difference can be made.

Solution -

The correct mindset for reaching Veterans must transition to a “no wrong door” approach. This can and should be created through a localized, national training by VA, Veterans Advocates and other experts to all members of local communities. These newly created “Veteran Friendly Communities” would have the tools to make referrals to the proper resources whether a Veteran walks into a rectory, a tax assessor’s office or is pulled over during a traffic stop.

Additionally, outreach and assistance programs cannot be reactionary in nature. The time to begin helping a Veteran in legal trouble for example, is upon first interaction, not just at sentencing.  In fact, in my own transition, it was a police officer who pulled me over for driving in Minneapolis like I had in Hadithah and Bagram that introduced me to my first Veterans advocate and helped me realize that difficulty transitioning was normal. Additionally, I now receive as an accredited service officer, a large number of referrals from local police officers that I call my friends.

Local Solutions to a National Issue:

While much of our conversation has always revolved around what VA and DoD does, can do and should do better, the reality is that much of the care delivered to Veterans in NY and across this country is done through private providers and other not for profit and public sector providers or other forms of government assistance. By urging VA to reach out to these providers, a referral and information sharing system can be implemented to ensure Veterans are maximizing their earned benefits and services.

As a Veterans advocate, I can and do certainly play a role in culling these local resources. For example, we have created the Saratoga County Veterans Resource Initiative, which gathers local elected officials, college administrators, Veterans advocates, private mental health providers, non-profits and others on a quarterly basis to familiarize all with what we do and how referrals can work between organizations. However this is an uphill climb for us because the impression that most of the citizenry has, is that taking care of Veterans is solely a VA or federal government role. When in reality the transition back to civilian life is a community process. I believe this to be caused by the generally one-sided dissemination of information by the VA to the general public as opposed to community engagement.

Local Engagement Opportunities:

  1. The VA has in place a network of county and state Veterans benefits counselors that when given a level of training and funding, can and should serve as community liaisons. While the US Department of Veterans Affairs may be our nations experts on Veterans related issues, our community leaders will be who brings Veterans back into the fold of everyday life. My experience as a Veterans advocate has been that the information sharing is largely one-sided from the VHA to us with little opportunity to engage with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and the VHA on real issues and improvements. Veteran’s advocates are on the “front lines” doing a large amount of VA’s enrollment and benefits delivery and are a valuable and many times an undervalued asset.
  1. Our country is filled with competent mental health care professionals that are constantly volunteering to treat and see Veterans. VA reluctance to use these community based providers in many instances turns Veterans and their families away from treatment at all. VA should look for ways to engage these highly trained professionals so Veterans can be treated comfortably in their community.
  1. In our county’s communities, local law enforcement, clergy and educators have been more than willing to learn about Veterans issues and provide referrals to care and benefits. This is merely the first step, but giving those who are willing and able to help an education can go a long ways in figuring out where the legitimate gaps are in the federal systems. Simply put, existing organization many times do not realize they are already serving Veterans. Understanding Veterans perspectives and service needs will improve the overall delivery of benefits and services at all levels.
  1. Associations such as PBA’s, Association of Sheriffs, First Responders and Firefighters typically meet annually and regionally. In both Minnesota and New York we have had little difficulty getting in front of these groups to introduce ourselves and what we do as advocates. The VA should be at these events to not only help Veteran members, but to continue to expand their “free” outreach team.
  1. The VA has come a long ways in a short amount of time in the use of technology, social media and non-traditional forms of outreach. However, VA must continue to leverage these resources at a localized level to engage a new generation of Veterans who is mobile and tech-savvy.
  1. The VA can work together with service organizations with mutual benefit to VA, Veterans and local posts and chapters to modernize an out-dated model. Veterans of this generation no longer find themselves gathering in mass at their local Legion, but instead gathering via Facebook and Skype. However, the power of gathered voice and advocacy these national organizations provide could be crucial if used properly.
  1. The VA’s implementation of MyHealtheVet and E-Benefits portals is a step in the right direction, but the centralized and physical nature of enrollment have made it difficult for a financially and employment challenged Veterans population to take advantage of these systems. Providing enrollment in the community or even outsourcing enrollment to CBOC’s and accredited Veterans advocates would assist in these matters greatly.
  1. My experience to date has shown me that VA employees in any part of the VA lack a basic understanding of local and state benefits and services. These can range from Veterans property tax exemptions like we have in NY to local transportation to medical appointments. Not only are the numerous people taking advantage of these benefits a good place to find potential patients and enrollees, but they are simple, quality of life benefits that can really help a Veteran engage the system for the first time.

Conclusion:

In sum, we as a nation must stand committed to ensuring that sustainable and quality supportive services are accessible to Veterans and their families’ right in their communities. I believe this can be done leveraging resources that largely already exist and in a cost effective manner. The VA has the geographical disbursement and expertise to lead this charge, but must think outside the box and look to those who are ready and willing to assist in our own backyards. The requirements to make this successful are not numerous. In many cases putting outreach staff at community events is all it will take. We must begin immediately leveraging relationships and expertise that has long existed.

Thank you again to the committee for allowing me to speak to these important issues.