The beautiful thing about working with veterans

written by naehblog
August 20, 2012

Today’s guest blog post is from Dana L. Niemela, homeless veterans reintegration program coordinator at the the Denver Department of Human Services.

After spending eight years on active duty, I decided to put the military far in my rearview mirror. I didn’t access the services to which I was entitled until I had been out for five years. When I finally did, I found it to be a tremendous struggle. Fortunately, I’m a resourceful, assertive individual who doesn’t respond well to stagnation or hearing the word “no.” I pressed on, but often wondered to myself, “what is happening to the veteran who may be 24 years old, served multiple combat tours and doesn’t feel as empowered as I?” The short answer is that I imagine that veteran would give up. In my opinion, that is completely unacceptable. So I got into the business of ensuring access to services for all veterans.

In doing my work, I learned that there are a tremendous number of resources for veterans in the community. We are very fortunate that we live in a time where being a veteran and helping a veteran is “sexy.” Everyone wants in on the game, for better or worse. It was not the same for those veterans who came before us. These veterans were disenfranchised from the system, spent decades fighting it only to be disappointed or discredited, and found themselves in a chronic condition that led them to believe they are not worth a good job, a roof over their heads, and a life of self-determination. It has become my mission to help them understand that things are different now. No matter how many times you have come through the door before, this time may be different. I ask the questions, “How badly do you want to be off the streets?” “Isn’t it a good feeling to be able to provide for yourself?” “Wouldn’t you love to be an active participant in the community and give back?” The answer is always an emphatic YES. And so I set out to ensure they have the tools to do exactly what they need to do.

The beautiful thing about working with veterans is that we have the unique ability to push each other a little harder. We can set higher expectations for one another and hold each other accountable for reaching each milestone along the way. After spending five years in the corporate world, I was horribly disappointed by the lack of individual accountability. I desperately wanted people to expect more of me, to raise the bar, and expect me to excel. I don’t believe that to be a uniquely veteran thing – I believe it’s a basic human need.

After joining a group called Veterans Expeditions, I went on an excursion into the mountains led by a former Army Ranger by the name of Nick. The physical test that I was put through on this expedition was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When Nick pointed out the route up the mountain, I didn’t understand. This was not a route that was meant for human beings to traverse. Mountain goats, maybe, but alas I am not a mountain goat. I thought I was in way over my head. When I told Nick that I didn’t know how to do what he was asking me to do, he taught me. He instructed me on what to do, and then expected me to do it. At that point it wasn’t a matter as to whether or not I had the tools to complete the mission, it was a matter of whether or not I had the intestinal fortitude to overcome my fears and push through the mental blocks. There was no way I was going to quit when Nick expected me to succeed. I made it to the top of the mountain, and when I turned around to look at the path from which I had just come, I cried. I was shaking as the adrenaline rushed through my body, and I just looked at Nick and said, “Thank you.”

I never would have even tried to push those boundaries if Nick hadn’t set the expectation that I could do it. Today I see a disturbing trend. I recently met with a 25-year-old combat veteran who told me that when he got out of the Army they handed him his VA paperwork and his unemployment application and said, “Go fill this out. You can live off this for the next 18 months.” What kind of bar are we setting for these young people when we encourage them to live off the system right from the start? I’ve seen too many young veterans walk through my door who have access to supports the likes of which the veterans who came before them only dreamed and have no idea what to do with the gift they have been given. What do you expect of a young man or woman who comes back from combat and is handed a “golden egg?” I know what I would have done when I was 25 years old, and it would have ended badly.

In the business of working with the homeless, there is a fine line between empowerment and enabling. We owe these veterans more than a hand out. It is my bet that they yearn for more than that. They look for leadership and guidance from those who are “in” the system as to how to best utilize the resources available to empower themselves to do better. We call that “self-determination.” No one should be a victim of these behemoth bureaucracies. They don’t have to be. As a service provider, I believe my role is to be their advocate, to help them access this horribly complicated system, and to leverage the multitude of resources available to them in order to empower them. The goal isn’t to put a bandage on the wound we call homelessness. The goal is to END it. “I love you my shipmate, but I don’t ever want to see you here again… so let’s see what we can do to make that happen.”