Help­ing our veterans

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - CHRIS TOM­LIN­SON Com­men­tary

Re­turn­ing to civil­ian life is tough for many.

Turn­ing in your weapon, tak­ing off the uni­form and re­turn­ing to civil­ian life is prob­a­bly the big­gest chal­lenge a war­rior faces after years of ser­vice, es­pe­cially if he or she has seen com­bat.

When the United Na­tions su­per­vises a peace agree­ment, it calls the process DDR: dis­ar­ma­ment, de­mo­bi­liza­tion and rein­te­gra­tion. DDR pro­grams of­ten in­volve weeks spent in tran­si­tion camps where for­mer fight­ers un­wind from mil­i­tary life and learn new skills that will help them find civil­ian jobs. So­cial work­ers then mon­i­tor the ex-com­bat­ants for months to en­sure they find homes, jobs and com­mu­ni­ties.

By com­par­i­son, U.S. sol­diers get seven days of rein­te­gra­tion train­ing when they re­turn from com­bat, and five days of prepa­ra­tion for civil­ian life. For many, the tran­si­tion is a cul­ture shock, and their new em­ploy­ers of­ten strug­gle to know how to help.

Many ma­jor com­pa­nies have made ad­mirable com­mit­ments to veterans and are pre­pared to help. JPMor­gan Chase of­fers a 12-week Mil­i­tary Vet­eran In­tern­ship Pro­gram that gives those with bach­e­lor’s de­grees the chance to tran­si­tion into the fi­nan­cial sec­tor.

Wal­mart has promised jobs to all veterans dis­charged since Memorial Day 2013 as long as they meet the com­pany’s stan­dard hir­ing cri­te­ria. Since then, the re­tailer has hired more than 188,000 veterans and pro­moted 24,000. Boe­ing has given $5 mil­lion to a USO pro­gram to help 210,000 veterans tran­si­tion to civil­ian life over the next three years.

These are ad­mirable pro­grams, but of­ten­times newly dis­charged ser­vice mem­bers don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Many enlisted mem­bers went straight from their

Veterans “want a chance to give back, to have a pur­pose.” Brian Wil­son, a for­mer Army medic

mother’s house to Un­cle Sam’s. Even more re­ceived train­ing for jobs where there is no civil­ian equiv­a­lent, such as in­fantry or naval gun­ner.

If you are a young per­son with lit­tle life ex­pe­ri­ence and few job skills, the civil­ian world be­comes a cold, strange and hos­tile place. Some em­ploy­ers may have few vets on the pay­roll and don’t know how to help when they ex­pe­ri­ence chal­lenges.

To help young troops nav­i­gate this lonely and treach­er­ous ter­rain be­tween mil­i­tary ser­vice and civil­ian suc­cess, and to pro­vide a re­source to Hous­ton-area em­ploy­ers, a team of veterans has estab­lished the Com­bined Arms Cen­ter.

Com­bined Arms is de­signed as a one-stop shop where veterans can ac­cess 283 pro­grams of­fered by 40 or­ga­ni­za­tions. Veterans create on­line pro­files, take as­sess­ments and then re­quest ser­vices. Com­bined Arms uses a cus­tom­ized Sales­force soft­ware to reg­is­ter the veterans and con­nect them to or­ga­ni­za­tions that can help. Com­bined Arms tracks the vets’ progress to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.

Ev­ery form of as­sis­tance is avail­able, in­clud­ing ca­reer coach­ing, em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, men­tal health ser­vices, le­gal ad­vice, fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance, home­less­ness pre­ven­tion and so­cial events.

“The No. 1 prob­lem for veterans as they tran­si­tion is that they don’t know what’s avail­able to them in the com­mu­ni­ties that they are go­ing to,” said Kelly Land, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Com­bined Arms and a for­mer Navy he­li­copter pi­lot. “Through this one con­tact with the vet­eran, we can con­nect them to many or­ga­ni­za­tions that can serve their needs.”

Since open­ing in July 2016, Com­bined Arms has been joined by about 2,000 veterans, and 1,300 are en­rolled in 4,300 pro­grams, in­clud­ing tran­si­tion work­shops. Com­bined Arms lever­ages its user data to iden­tify peo­ple who may need ur­gent as­sis­tance.

What vets want most are ca­reer ser­vices and op­por­tu­ni­ties to con­nect and so­cial­ize with other veterans. Find­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion where they can vol­un­teer ranks third, be­cause vets long for a sense of mission.

“They want a chance to give back, to have a pur­pose,” said Brian Wil­son, creative tech­nol­ogy man­ager for Com­bined Arms and a for­mer Army medic. “That’s what we had in the mil­i­tary. We were spoiled. We had three hots and a cot, a pay­check, and we were sent out with a mission ev­ery day. You barely get that in the civil­ian world, un­less you are a po­lice of­fi­cer or a fire­fighter.”

Land said he knows that veterans are not al­ways the eas­i­est em­ploy­ees, es­pe­cially dur­ing the first three years after they get out. So he wants em­ploy­ers to con­sider Com­bined Arms a re­source where veterans can get the help or pur­pose they need. In re­turn, he hopes that by the time Com­bined Arms’ seed money runs out in 2021, the Hous­ton com­mu­nity will fi­nan­cially sup­port his non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“For an em­ployer to have an em­ployee who isn’t strug­gling as hard as they used to — who is thriv­ing in the work­place and thriv­ing in life in gen­eral — that is great,” Land said. “It’s amaz­ing the re­sources we have here, and how much bet­ter peo­ple’s lives would be if they got in­volved.”

If you are a vet who needs a help­ing hand, con­tact Com­bined Arms. If you are a vet who wants to give back, fill out a pro­file at Com­bined Arms. And if you are a com­pany that wants to hire or help vets, well, you know where to go. Don’t just thank vets for their ser­vice. Make sure they get the ser­vices they need. They will pay it for­ward.

Chris Tom­lin­son is the Chron­i­cle’s busi­ness colum­nist. chris.tom­lin­ twit­­lin­son www.hous­tonchron­i­ au­thor/chris-tom­lin­son

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Monique Rodriguez, Kelly Land, Brian Wil­son and Bryan Es­cobedo are part of Com­bined Arms, a on­estop shop for veterans look­ing for ca­reer coach­ing or other as­sis­tance.

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