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Witness Testimony of Chaplain John J. Morris, Joint Force Headquarters Chaplain Minnesota National Guard

Opening Remarks

Chairman Buerkle, Ranking Member Michaud, distinguished members of the subcommittee; I am honored to appear before you today.

 I am the State Chaplain for the Minnesota National Guard.I am the co-founder of the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon initiative.  I have spent the last seven years of my military service facilitating the collaboration of the Minnesota National Guard, faith-based and community organizations and the VA resources of the Midwest VA Health Network (VISN 23) to support the reintegration of over 20,000 Minnesota National Guard combat veterans.

I am a consumer of VA medical care as an enrolled veteran with the Minneapolis VA. I am the father of two combat veteran daughters who are receiving medical care through the VA system.

I am an ardent supporter of the VA and the resources it provides to our veterans.

The Minnesota National Guard Beyond the Yellow Ribbon collaboration with the VA

In 2005 Major General Larry Shellito, then Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, hired me to create a reintegration program to help the Minnesota National Guard combat veterans successfully transition from warriors to productive citizens.

The first institution we turned to for help was the Minneapolis VA medical center.    We wanted our veterans to receive medical care if needed and benefits if earned. We knew that the demobilization process used at that time was ineffective in connecting veterans with the VA process. We were concerned that a majority of our veterans would not access all that was available to them in terms of VA services.

We found a very willing partner in the Minneapolis VA medical center. Our partnership grew to include the VA medical centers in St. Cloud, MN. Fargo, ND., Twin Ports in Superior, WI and Sioux Falls in SD. We expanded our partnership to include the Vet Centers in Fargo, ND. St. Paul, MN, Sioux Falls, SD and Duluth, MN. Today we enjoy a close collaboration with the leadership of VISN 23 and all the VA entities in Minnesota. 

We have successfully collaborated with the VA on the following initiatives in support of our returning combat veterans:

1) Expedited enrollment of our demobilizing soldiers, at their demobilization site, by MN VA personnel. This is insures our veterans are enrolled in the VA in the catchment area they live in and they are provided initial appointments.

2) RINGS 1 and RINGS 2, (Readiness and Resilience in National Guard Soldiers), Research studies on the soldiers/families of the 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry Division. These longitudinal studies have focused on the role of the community in facilitating successful reintegration and mitigating the effects of combat stress.

3) Collaborative training of local clergy utilizing VA Chaplains and Vet Center staff.

4) Collaborative training of Minnesota Army National Guard Chaplains and Chaplain Candidates in Clinical Pastoral Education utilizing the Supervisory Chaplain of the St. Cloud, MN VA. We have trained 15 chaplains and chaplain candidates, to date.

5) VA Behavioral Mental Health providers from the OIF/OEF outreach clinic providing satellite service at Camp Ripley, MN during annual training periods of the Minnesota Army National Guard.

6) Vet Center Staff and VA OIF/OEF outreach personnel present at every Minnesota National Guard reintegration event, pre and post deployment.

7) Minneapolis VA Suicide Prevention Specialists regularly provide training to the Minnesota National Guard and participate in clergy outreach training with the Minnesota National Guard Chaplain Corps.

8) The Minneapolis VA Polytrauma Center Staff provided training for the 34th Infantry Division Command and Staff prior to their deployment to Iraq in 2009.

9) The Recruiting Command of the Minnesota Army National Guard provides soldiers trained by the Minneapolis VA to visit wounded warriors in the Minneapolis VA Polytrauma unit.

10) The Vet Centers of Minnesota have collaborated with the Minnesota National Guard to provide training for marriage and family therapists, as well as licensed social workers, and psychologists at community outreach events hosted by the Minnesota National Guard Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program.

11) The Minnesota National Guard and the Minneapolis Regional Pension and Disability Claims office work collaboratively to provide the medial records of soldiers seeking disability compensation.

The Minnesota National Guard Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program and community partnerships

The underlining operating principle of the Minnesota National Guard reintegration initiative, (also known as, “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon”) is that it takes the entire community to help a warrior return from war, reunite with his/her family and resume a productive life as a civilian.  Consequently, while partnering with the VA the Minnesota Guard has also worked to partner with business, social service, education, and faith-based organizations in every community in Minnesota that is host to National Guard facility.

The Beyond the Yellow Program, under the purview of Governors Pawlenty (2005-2010) and Governor Dayton (2011-present), thru the Minnesota National Guard as program manager, has a formal process for synchronizing the services of Federal, state and county agencies for the benefit of returning combat veterans and their families. In addition the program provides training for community organizations on how to support military members, veterans and their families. To date twenty five Minnesota communities have been certified by the Governor’s office as ‘Yellow Ribbon’ Communities.  The program synchronizes the good will and services of the agencies of the government and community organizations to support military families during the duress of deployments and the returning combat veteran during reintegration, post combat.

We have garnered tremendous support for our military families and returning combat veterans. The Beyond the Yellow Program has synchronized the agencies of the federal, state, and local government with the services of our communities to result in providing the support needed by our military families. This has resulted in more productive combat veterans and reduced pathology as demonstrated by the VA’s Rings 1 study.

The Challenges and Opportunities the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program presents for the VA system

The VISN 23 VA organizations and institutions have been significant partners in our Beyond the Yellow Ribbon initiative. I believe they could play even more significant roles.  They have vital information to share with civilian medical providers, clinical social workers and faith-based leaders. They have expertise to share with community based organizations. The involvement of the VA and their synchronization into Beyond the Yellow Ribbon reintegration efforts will enhance the initiative and result in healthier combat veterans and their families.

There are significant challenges to overcome, however, in order for the VA to truly be a ‘community partner’. I will outline those challenges:

1) Perception and Stigma-My experience with community leaders has been that they perceive the VA to be a distant and closed institution.  By virtue of the fact that relatively few citizens are veterans most Minnesotans have no experience with the VA, thus the ‘mystery’ surrounding the institution. Combined with anecdotes shared by the media of controversy with the VA, (e.g., inadequate care, lack of resources, theft of computers resulting in social security numbers of veterans being lost, etc..) and perception becomes reality in the minds of community leaders.

2) Institutionalism-The VA is a federal bureaucracy. Consequently, its system is foreign to outsiders. This is a significant bar to inclusion in community outreach and synchronization of services with community-based organizations. I can illustrate this is several ways:

a) The Minneapolis VA has a world-class Polytrauma unit providing the finest medical care to our most severely injured warriors. It has deservedly received positive media coverage and accolades.  However, on numerous occasions, when community organizations have wanted to donate goods, gifts and goodwill to the families/wounded warriors they have met with hurdles too high to overcome. At the core of the problem is HIPA. The VA’s understandable need to protect truly vulnerable wounded warriors’ results in them being shut off from the support of the community.  I have personally witnessed this on a least a dozen occasions. From inability to donate professional sports team tickets to wounded soldiers to the recent inability of Best Buy Corporation to personally deliver care packages to wounded warriors the community is shut off from working closely with this world class program.

b) The VA is not staffed to conduct effective community outreach. While mandated to provide training for civilian providers and clergy I have personally attended ten VA outreach events, none of which was able to garner more than a handful of community members. The VA does not know how to effectively meet, greet and share with the community the tremendous work they do and the wonderful services they offer.

c) The VA appears to lack a means to share their vast experience of working with veterans with their civilian counterparts in the fields of medicine, behavioral mental health and faith-based institutions.  An example would be the growing body of knowledge surrounding Traumatic Brain Injury. Health care providers in the greater community need to know what the VA knows about this wound, its symptoms, impact and treatment. Symposiums, media messaging, training outreach events and community forums would be ideal means for transmitting the VA experience to the greater community. To date, I know of few of these events. In a similar vein VA Chaplains have much to share with their colleagues in the civilian community.

d) The VA lacks the means to connect returning wounded warriors, that have received in patient care in their hospitals, with the greater community. I have personally witnessed four severely injured OIF/OEF veterans struggle tremendously in readjusting within the community, post VA care. They were isolated and the VA social worker was unable, due to large case load, to meet often enough with the veteran to help them connect successfully to community.

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS

In Minnesota the simplest way to address the issues I have outlined would be for the VA, in all of its configurations, to become an official Beyond the Yellow Ribbon partner under Governor Dayton’s model of partnership.

- Have the VA receive the community training all community leaders receive and have the VA meet all the program requirements that other partners in the community meet.

-Have VA leadership join their civilian colleagues at Beyond the Yellow Ribbon community leaders’ events.

-Have the VA partner with community and faith-based organizations for more effective synchronization of support for veterans and military families.

In the area of working with faith-based organizations the VA needs to invite faith-based leaders onto their campuses and into their facilities for orientation tours, seminars and collaborative sharing of information about the needs of veterans and pastoral care of veterans.

Minnesota is blessed to be the home of four major theological seminaries that train faith-based leaders. The VA would be well served to introduce itself to the leadership of the seminaries and to find ways to partner in the sharing of knowledge.

-Have the VA officially partner with the Guard leadership in each state. In Minnesota the Adjutant General, Major General Nash, has a personal relationship with the VA Medical Center directors in Minneapolis, MN. St Cloud, MN and Fargo, ND. He has been in their facilities and knows their capabilities. He has personally authorized the Rings 1 and 2 studies of his soldiers. He monitors the results of the study and insures its findings inform the best practices of the Minnesota National Guard. He has invited the VA to the drill floors of his units and relies on the VA for the first class service they can provide.  This type of senior leader partnership results in great access to service, smoother facilitation of the claims process and greater care of veterans.  This could be replicated nationwide.

-In times of fiscal austerity the Fischer Houses of the VA system could easily synchronize their efforts with the Family Programs Office of the Guard. This would result in the families of veterans residing at the Fischer Houses receiving the good will of the communities that flows through the Family Programs of the Guard. The Guard, as America’s local military force, most immediately receives the support of the community. The Guard Family Programs has access to community resources that the Fischer Houses need, but often have to find on their own, with limited knowledge of the local community capabilities. Collaboration saves money, helps families and enhances the effectiveness of the VA and the Guard Family Programs.

Closing Remarks

In closing I would like to reiterate my support and admiration for the men and women of the Veterans Administration. As a veteran I know we are truly blessed by their service. I believe they have a vital role in the reintegration of our veterans and welfare of the families of our veterans. I believe the VA’s effectiveness can be increased by its inclusion in our greater community and enhanced collaboration with all segments of the community that seek to support our military families and combat veterans.

I appreciate the opportunity to be here today and invite your questions and comments.