JACKSONVILLE, Fla., April 18, 2014 —
The senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited city hall, a veterans center and a Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic here yesterday to learn about how veterans, citizens and elected officials take care of current and former military members.
At city hall, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Bryan B. Battaglia met with Mayor Alvin Brown and his staff to discuss veteran matters, with a particular focus on the homeless and disabled population.
“Through grants and partnerships, our team has been able to provide emergency financial assistance to veterans for rent, utilities, food and clothing,” said Harrison Conyers, the city’s veterans and community outreach manager. “We help people who need immediate assistance and who we can’t just refer out –- we’ve got to take care of ourselves.”
Conyers explained that his department develops monthly career exercises, ongoing resume and state workforce board assistance, free tax preparation and more.
“We’ve been able to expand what we’re doing without impacting the taxpayers,” he said. “In a short time, we’ve pretty much doubled the services we can provide to veterans.”
With Jacksonville’s densely populated veteran community, the need for assistance never wanes, said Victor Guillory, director of military affairs and veterans department in the mayor’s office.
“Through the generosity of grants and the local communities, we have funds to help veterans stay in their homes,” he said.
But the mayor’s office, Guillory noted, also works closely with the Five Star Veterans Center, a community resource and transitional center for veterans who need additional help maintaining a homestead. The facility holds 22 residents who are in various stages of phased rehabilitation customized for their situations.
The residents get a safe place to sleep, a continental breakfast, soup and a sandwich for lunch and a hot meal for dinner, said retired Marine Corps Col. Len Loving, the center’s chief executive officer.
The first phase involves an agreement to remain on the premises, abide by the rules and garner the necessary resume and computer training, Loving said. From there, the center’s staff works with local VA officials to assess residents’ physical and psychological issues before connecting them to a caseworker for further individual assistance, he said. “The resident will need to develop short- and long-term goals and commit to part-time school and work or full-time work,” he added.
The center’s staff and volunteers work with employers to identify issues, and they help the residents correct them to establish a steady, reliable work ethic.
Fourth phase residents have about three months to set up a bank or credit union account and develop an exit plan for independent living.
“We hope they’ll save enough to have about two months of expenses when they walk out of here,” Loving said. “We help them with a care package of clothing and furniture, and even tap into VA programs so they can handle their own expenses.”
Loving said that in his experience with thousands of veterans, there is typically a three-to-four-year delay after service before veterans who need help truly realize that they do. And the abrupt shift from a high-intensity environment to one of day-to-day life maintenance activities can be harrowing for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury, he added.
If compounded with financial problems stemming from divorce, alimony or child support issues, the perfect storm and downward spiral intensifies, he said.
“If a military member gets a divorce while on active duty, a judge typically bases child support payments on their salary at that time, which becomes significantly reduced once they’re no longer in service,” Loving noted. And in Florida, he added, nonpayment of child support results in a driver’s license suspension.
Loving said he has received offers from lawyers to help veterans free of charge to manage child support payments and ask judges to grant restricted licenses for veterans to commute to work or school.
One resident said he confided in Battaglia to share his experiences and challenges with him during the visit.
“The sergeant major is a damn good Marine,” the resident said. “He’s a lot more knowledgeable and more open to listen to us than any other officer or enlisted person I’ve ever met.”
But as a growing number of veterans require ongoing medical and mental health care, the need for quality facilities to take care of them increases as well. The VA outpatient clinic here is “more than a doctor’s office, but short of a hospital,” said Dr. R. Daniel Morgann, chief medical officer. But the staff is trained to deal with emergencies, he added.
This clinic has about 37,000 patients in its care, and the staff sees 1,200 to 1,500 patients daily. Morgann said the VA’s unique mission there called for specialized design and planning.
“We wanted to make sure there was intimacy, but there was also a lot of space,” Morgann said. “We didn’t want anyone to feel corralled.”
The clinic, he explained, provides a broad range of general and specialized medical, dental, surgical, psychiatric, nursing and ancillary services and serves acute and chronically ill eligible veterans, without them having to visit more remote VA facilities.
“Our veterans require care that runs the gamut from minor health care needs to urgent care,” the doctor said, but he noted the clinic can stabilize veterans with physical or mental issues before transferring them to either local facilities or to the Gainesville or Lake City VA Medical Centers.
The doctor said he learned early on the disparity between business and care when it came to medicine.
“The VA was a way for me to deliver care and focus on the patients, not revenue,” he said. “The idea is to reduce costs through innovation, but not at the expense of quality, accessibility and personalized interaction.”
And while telemedicine -- remote, computerized patient care -- is a burgeoning technology that can expedite and facilitate some medical needs and therapies, Morgann said, it shouldn’t completely replace in-person engagement and care with veterans.
“We can leverage this technology, but we have to do it where and when it is smart,” he said.
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleAFPS)