Georgia Eases License Requirements for Veteran Job Seekers

Georgia Eases

By Debbie Gregory.

Becoming a plumber, electrician or similar skilled laborer will be easier for veterans and their spouses who are looking to relocate to Georgia, thanks to legislation passed by the General Assembly there.

Officials expect more than 60,000 contractor jobs will need to be filled in Georgia by the year 2020. The state’s lawmakers want veterans and their family members to have a fair shot at filling those slots.

Effective July 1, the Veterans Licensure Bill will speed up the certification process for veterans and their family members seeking employment in five in-demand occupations: plumber, electrician, heating and air specialist, residential lighting and utility foreman.

Under the new statute, certification requirements, such as insurance costs and renewal fees, remain unchanged. However, veterans and their families no longer have to furnish reference letters or wait up to a year to take licensing exams to satisfy labor union regulations, as in years past. Instead, a committee will issue certification waivers and immediately approve their licenses if they meet or exceed the levels of training, experience or testing required for state permits.

“Georgia is a military state, with more than 770,000 veterans living here, but many of our veterans returning from deployment face challenges finding employment,” said Gov. Nathan Deal, whose office has been working on the legislation since last year. “The licensure bill will better serve our returning heroes by ensuring that they move into qualified trade positions more quickly upon their return.”

State Rep. John P. Yates, R-Griffin, was among the first lawmakers to sponsor the bill.

As a 91-year-old Army veteran, and chairman of the Georgia House of Representatives’ Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, Yates said he knows the anxieties military officers face when exiting the armed services. Yates used his experiences to strengthen the state’s veteran employment laws.

“I knew from the moment the governor contacted me about this bill that it would be important to people in the service, because when I was off fighting the war, I was worried if I would get a decent job when I returned home,” said Yates, who served during World War II.

Officials said that by 2016, Georgia will see more than 60,000 members of the military leaving active duty for civilian life. Currently, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 66,000 veterans in the Augusta area, 27,000 of whom are under the age of 45. The state and federal government do not keep records on veteran unemployment in Augusta or Georgia.

“Like all bills, we have to get the word out before we can know what the impact will be,” Yates said of the success of the Veterans Licensure Bill. “At first glance, however, I think it can only help.”

No Easy Answers for Military Suicides

no easy answers

By Debbie Gregory.

Media outlets in Clarksville, TN have obtained reports on the investigations of 17 recent suicides in the military community there. What they have found is that there is no common thread linking the deaths. What they know for sure is that the number of military suicides today is worse than it was a decade ago.

What they learned about the victims from the reports:

• Some victims were driven perfectionists and model soldiers. Some were anything but. Drugs and alcohol show up in some files and not at all in others. The same goes for financial problems.

• Some had no relationship issues, criminal conduct or even minor misconduct, while others rode the razor’s edge of trouble all the way down the chute to oblivion.

• Some gave signs or cried out for help, but many did not, and in too many cases, victims were so good at hiding their problems and pain that their deaths took those closest to them completely by surprise.

Surprisingly, none of the soldiers who committed suicide had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fifteen of the 17 reports available involved units of the 101st Airborne, which cover nearly 30,000 soldiers at the post. Two cases occurred within the much-smaller 5th Special Forces Group. The available reports do not include soldiers who committed suicide while deployed. Two cases involved women soldiers. The rest were men. That breakdown is close to the actual gender composition of the Army.

As the number of military suicides continues to rise, so do the number of people who blame the decade of war and resulting TBI and PTSD cases. While the consequences of PTSD and TBI are very real problems that society will be dealing with for generations to come, according to military figures, 53 percent of all service members who commit suicide had never deployed.

Of those who had deployed, many were never in combat zones. And of those in combat zones, many didn’t engage in direct combat with the enemy. According to the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report for 2011, 85 percent of military suicides never experienced direct combat.

Army guidelines no longer stipulate combat service as required for a PTSD diagnosis. But even with that expanded guideline, a majority of military suicides have no corresponding diagnosis of PTSD or TBI to point to as a factor. Suicide rates have risen among service members who have deployed and among those who have not.

The spike in military suicides hit a peak in 2012 with 350 – or nearly one a day – combining active-duty, reserve and National Guard figures. The figure exceeded the 295 combat deaths for 2012, causing a public outcry.

“It’s easy for the press and the public to look at the number of suicides coming out of the Army and conclude there’s a crisis,” said Scott Ridgway of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. “But they don’t realize that suicide is just as common, or even more so, in the general population. On average there are more than 900 confirmed suicide deaths in Tennessee each year, and about 35,000 nationwide.

“I think that the media and general public expect fewer suicides in the military because it’s a controlled environment. Fort Campbell has approximately 34,000 service members and 50,000 civilians living on or around the base. If you compare that to any other community in this area with a similar population, you’ll find that the suicide rates these days are running about the same.

“Of course, even one suicide is too many.”

Understanding USERRA


By Debbie Gregory.

The federal laws outlining the rights of Reserve and National Guard soldiers and the duties of their civilian employers are complicated. Those rules are outlined in the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) and are an important guide for employees and employers to understand. Furthermore, every business, whether it employs one military member or 1,000, is legally bound to follow these federal mandates.

Nearly half of the nation’s military members are part of the Guard and Reserve forces, meaning at some point many civilian employers will lose their employees to military duties. The USERRA laws help make that transition smoother by outlining expectations employers must meet during a military member’s employment, re-employment and retention while serving in uniform.

It is important for employers to note that the law’s definition of military service is broad, and covers all military training, including duty performed on a voluntary or involuntary basis, and in time of war or peace. It also covers military members who enter active duty as part of a response to a national disaster.

Major points of the USERRA that employers should know:

–          Employers cannot refuse to hire an individual because of pending military training.

–          After military leave, the employer must re-employ the individual to the position they would have held had they not deployed with the military.

–          Employers must also determine what pay or promotions the employee would have received while they were gone on military leave, and increase their pay to that amount, as well as provide them with the seniority and status they would have attained.

–           USERRA applies to all employees, including executive, managerial and professional employees.

–          The employee is not required to get permission from their employer before performing military, service but must give notice of the upcoming service.

–          If the employee’s most recent period of service in the military was more than 30 days, he or she must not be discharged, except for cause, for: (1) 80 days after re-employment if the employees service was more than 30 days but less than 180 days; or for (2) one year after reemployment if the employee’s most recent period of uniformed service was more than 180 days. This law essentially amends the “at will” doctrine under these circumstances.

–          If the military service exceeds 30 days, the employer can request documentation in connection with the employee’s re-employment.

–          Unlike FMLA, there is no special working time pre-requisites for an employee to vest into eligibility for USERRA. The law’s rights kick in on the first day of employment.

The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) is available for both employees and employers, to explain the laws and act as a mediator between military members and their civilian employers. For assistance, contact them at www.ESGR.MIL or at 1-800-336-4590.

Getting ready for college

getting ready for college

By Debbie Gregory.

Veteran students have big dreams. But for some, it has been a long time since they have been in a classroom setting. They need to catch up, but don’t want to use part of their 36 months of G.I. Bill benefits to catch up, leaving them without enough benefits to earn a degree.

A new program is bridging that cap for veteran students and making their introduction to college a little smoother.

A-VET is the acronym for Acceleration Veteran Education and Transition. Its first seven-week boot camp started on June 17, and it’s designed for post-9/11 military veterans who want to further their education, but whose test scores show they aren’t quite ready for college-level courses.

A-VET Boot Camp allows veterans to take free remedial classes, so they don’t have to dip into their benefits.

The Wounded Warrior Project gave A-VET Boot Camp a $60,000 grant to kick-start the program. Four veteran students are participating in the first boot camp with three instructors who teach classes in English, math and various skills that will help the veterans adjust to college life. Another seven-week cycle is scheduled to begin in October with 20 veteran students. The program is being spearheaded by the August/Aiken Warrior Project, USC Aiken and Aiken Tech.

A-VET coordinator Sharon DuBose said her office will develop and improve the program based on participants’ feedback. Her hope is for other colleges to begin offering the program as well.

At the end of the boot camp, officials hope veterans will be prepped to take placement tests, and perform well enough to attend the schools or online programs they are interested in.

The A-VET Boot Camp program came about “because we all started putting our heads together to see what we could do,” said Robert Murphy, who is involved with the Augusta/Aiken Warrior Project, and also is the program lead for USC Aiken’s Veteran Student Success Center.

“We didn’t want to have our veterans burning up their benefits taking remedial classes,” Murphy said. “It’s a big problem, and it’s something that should concern us as taxpayers who are putting billions of dollars into the G.I. Bill. We need to know that these veterans are getting degrees or certificates and not just hanging out in school for three or four years and then leaving.”

Fighting An Uphill Battle

fighting uphill battle

By Debbie Gregory.

Studies have found that almost one in five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. But as the Army continues to wage war on the battlefield, commanders are having difficulty fulfilling the needs of its soldiers as they wage their own battle against PTSD. It has resulted, in many cases, in soldiers, many decorated for their service, running into trouble and being discharged.

For Capt. Anthony Martinez, PTSD was the beginning of the end of his 16-year military career.

Martinez, 34, immigrated to the United States at age 13 from the Philippines. He didn’t speak English. His stepmother abused and starved him and his younger brother. The Army offered an escape. And Martinez excelled at what he saw as a new chance at life. At his first duty station officers encouraged him to apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was accepted in graduated in 2004 with high marks.

On his first deployment to Iraq in 2006 a good friend was killed, rattling Martinez. Once home, he began showing signs of PTSD. He punched holes in his walls and drank heavily. In 2009, he deployed again as a small, 11-man team assigned to a base with thousands of Iraq soldier who they were helping to train. Martinez and his men felt unsafe and slept with loaded rifles. They grew more and more suspicious over the deployment as several incidents unfolded: Martinez was fired on while training local soldiers, a mortar was launched at their building and interpreters proved to be untrustworthy.

After the deployment, Martinez was shipped to an intensive three-course military class. There he was aggressive in class and failed the material. Doctors diagnosed him with adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression.

Next he volunteered to teach soldiers at a training center. There, his PTSD symptoms worsened. He says he couldn’t sleep or function. By the time he returned home, he was sleeping only two to three hours a night. He suffered anxiety attacks in crowds. He was drinking heavily. The psychologist changed his diagnosis to PTSD. At the same time, his unit chose him to command Headquarters company. When Martinez asked to be removed from the position because of his diagnosis and continuing health problems, he was told no.

After he took command, his unit had six months to prepare for deployment. Martinez began to crack under the pressure. Senior NCOs recognized his difficulties handling the job and recovering from PTSD and asked that he be relieved of his duties. Their requests were ignored.

With each red flag and warning signal that Martinez was suffering more, commanders ignored both his pleas for help and of those around him.

Six weeks before shipping off, Martinez threatened suicide. Then he wrote a formal memo detailing who should take over the company if he had a mental breakdown while in Afghanistan.

Martinez’s commanders still sent him to war. When he arrived in Afghanistan, Martinez quickly cracked. He isolated himself, had angry, irrational outbursts and threatened two soldiers.

He told one to get out of his office “or I’ll shoot you in the face.” Then, during an argument with his supply sergeant, he ordered a private in the room to load his weapon — an unheard of escalation on a fellow soldier.

Now the Army wants to act. Martinez is facing a general discharge. Despite the repeated pleas for help and signs of Martinez’s deteriorating mental health, his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Calvin Downey wrote that Martinez “made a series of decisions that led to unfortunate circumstances.

Martinez’s lawyer, Douglas Cody, said there were many points along the way where the Army could have prevented this outcome and gotten Martinez the help he needed.

“That’s the tragedy of the situation,” he said. “They set him up for failure and now are abandoning him.”

Martinez’s fate will soon be in the hands of the secretary of the Army. He will decide whether the captain should be medically discharged or kicked out for misconduct.

$595 billion defense spending bill passed


By Debbie Gregory.

Defense Subcommittee Chairman Bill Young honors his commitment to our soldiers and their families with the H.R. 2397 bill. There was strong bi-partisan support to approve the defense spending bill. The bill includes base funding of $512.5 billion for the Department of Defense, which is $3.4 billion below the CBO estimate of the President’s request, and approximately $28.1 billion above the estimated fiscal year 2013 sequestration level.  For Overseas Contingency Operations, the bill includes $85.8 billion, which is $1.5 billion below last year’s level.

Members of the House worked closely with all interested parties to produce a good, bi-partisan bill.  And despite the reduction in their base allocation, they were able to accomplish quite a bit.  For example, the bill adds:

  • $580 million to fully fund the authorized military pay raise
  • $536 million to fully fund anticipated fuel costs
  • $950 million to fully fund the 2nd Virginia Class submarine
  • $922 million to restore Facility Sustainment, Modernization and Restoration funding
  • $692 million for military medical research, including $246 million for cancer research and $125 million for Traumatic Brain Injury research.

Examples in Overseas Contingency Operations:

  • $1.5 billion for the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account
  • $1.1 billion for depot maintenance shortfalls
  • $1.3 billion for Army reset requirements
  • $1.1 billion for the OCO Transfer Fund to provide flexibility in addressing unanticipated or emergency OCO cost

Defense Subcommittee Chairman Young believes that more can be done to repay the damage to military readiness already caused by sequestration if resources were not constrained.

However, if sequestration is allowed to continue in fiscal year 2014, the actual funds provided to the department are estimated to be $468 billion – more than $44 billion less.  That would also be $16 billion below the sequestration level the department is trying to execute this fiscal year (2013).  Readiness is already jeopardized; any further cuts would be devastating.

H. R. 2397 provides the department with the much needed resources required to modernize and maintain readiness at the levels needed for our military to preserve its standing as the most capable and superior armed forces in the world.  In that regard, it is essential that the bill is passed as soon as possible.

Senate withholding details on recently passed vets bills


By Debbie Gregory.

On July 24th, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs approved a package of bills aimed at improving benefits and health care services for veterans and their families.

However, following a tradition that dates back three decades, the text of the bills was not released and won’t be made available until the measures are reported to the Senate. That may not happen until fall.

Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said the package includes a measure to bring the Department of Veterans Affairs in line with a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. Other legislation approved by the Committee would improve the delivery of care and benefits for veterans who experienced sexual assault in the military. Another bill would require the VA provide detailed reports to Congress on the effort to eliminate the staggering claims backlog.

The legislation cleared by the committee would:

•Expand eligibility benefits to spouses in states that allow gay marriages. The measure would bring the VA into conformance with a June 26 ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down  federal law that unconstitutionally denied federal benefits for all legally married couples.

•Improve the delivery of care and benefits for veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military. Ruth Moore was the inspiration for this legislation. Raped in 1987 by her Navy supervisor, Moore struggled for 23-years to receive VA disability compensation.  Her battle for benefits finally succeeded when she lived in West Danville, VT, and contacted Congressman, Bernie Sanders, for help.

•Extend to veteran caregivers eligibility for the family caregiver program.  This program currently provides services and benefits – including a monthly stipend, reimbursement for travel expenses, counseling, training and respite care – to caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans.

•Require quarterly reports to Congress on efforts to eliminate a backlog of benefits claims by 2015. The VA would have to detail both the projected and actual number of claims received, pending, completed and on appeal.

•Improve veterans’ health care through increased access to complementary and alternative medicine, chiropractic care and transportation services.

•Expand access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors, including eligibility for recently-separated veterans to qualify for in-state tuition, and improving the level of benefits offered to survivors of service members killed while on active duty.

•Expand employment opportunities for veterans through new programs that will encourage employers to hire veterans, and by renewing the popular Veterans Retraining Assistance Program from VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.

Army jobs for women may be expanding


By Debbie Gregory.

The role of American women in war is evolving. In 2012, the Pentagon announced that women would be formally permitted in crucial and dangerous jobs, closer to the front lines. But the Pentagon stopped short of officially allowing women to serve in combat.

Women already serve in many combat jobs, but as temporary “attachments” to battalions — a bureaucratic sidestep that has been necessary due to the high demand for troops during the last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Women were permanently assigned to a battalion — a ground unit of some 800 personnel — as radio operators, medics, tank mechanics and other critical jobs.

The Army announced plans to integrate women into combat roles, opening positions within 27 brigade combat teams (BCT), which include nine National Guard brigade combat teams.

Seventeen brigade combat teams are placing women in combat-related jobs as part of the Defense Department’s ongoing effort to open all military jobs to women.

The BCTs – eight in the active Army and nine in the Army National Guard, will assign female soldiers to their maneuver battalions’ headquarters in military occupational specialties already open to women.

The 17 newly added BCTs would seek female company-grade officers and noncommissioned officers in the grades of sergeant through sergeant first class, for as many as 1,700 positions.

The goal is to initially assign female captains and staff sergeants and sergeants first class to these units. Sergeants may be considered for chaplain assistant jobs.

Military leaders are ready to begin tearing down the remaining walls that have prevented women from holding thousands of combat and special operations jobs near the front lines.  Women could start training as Army Rangers by mid-2015 and as Navy SEALs a year later.

The military services have mapped out a schedule that will review and possibly change the physical and mental standards that men and women will have to meet to quality for certain front-line positions across service branches. Under the plan, there would be one common standard for men and women for each job.

Veteran successes through Shakespeare


By Debbie Gregory.

Fifteen years ago, former Pfc. and military police officer Jerry Whiteside had two masks tattooed on his left bicep, one smiling, and the other frowning.

Little did he know that more than a decade later, he would be symbolically reunited with the images imprinted on his skin.

After serving in the Marine Corps from 1972 to 1976, Whiteside left his native Chicago and headed for Los Angeles.  He struggled for 30 years with drugs and alcohol.

After completing a detoxification program in 2011, he was referred to the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA). He got a job working on the set of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He was living his dream to be in the theater.

Thirty other veterans of the Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and Gulf wars joined the work crew. They worked together building the set and doing odd jobs for the production.

SCLA is a 501(c) non-profit organization whose primary mission is to enchant, enrich, and build community through professional theatrical traditions that are accessible to all.

SCLA’s artistic director Ben Donenberg said employing veterans stemmed from another of the company’s outreach programs. “Will Power to Youth” hires young Angelenos to study and perform Shakespeare plays. After seeing alumni of the program serving in the armed services and later seeking jobs at home, the company decided to extend its employment program opportunity to veterans, beginning last year.

SCLA’s new initiative, “Veterans in Art”, represents an innovation in veterans programming that explores how the arts can contribute, in a meaningful way, to the efforts of assisting veterans recover and reintegrate into mainstream Los Angeles civilian life.

The program represents a proposed partnership between the Shakespeare Center of LA, Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks, veterans associations at both the Southern Californian and national levels,  and the Los Angeles philanthropic community.

SCLA’s intent is to modify and build upon the “Will Power to Youth” model of arts-based and Shakespeare-inspired job training. The design will encompass a spectrum of issues related to veterans’ past experiences and future hopes, dreams and aspirations.

Mobile Health: Taking Healthcare on the road


By Debbie Gregory.

Smart mobile devices represent an important part of our daily lives. Now they afford an opportunity to engage patients in the management of their health as well as behaviors that effect health.

Smart phone technology offers patient-centered care that provides remote access to electronic medical records, virtual monitoring and visits, asynchronous communication, social networking, video conferencing and remote documentation. This technology will dramatically change healthcare delivery in the US. Results of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mobile programs are beginning to show great positive results.

Veterans Affairs (VA) is responsible for 22 million veterans. Over 9 million veterans currently obtain healthcare from the VA. The VA leads U.S. federal mobile healthcare initiatives for both patients and providers.

The VA Mobile Health and wireless outreach are part of a larger effort to change the way care is delivered, by designing its systems around the needs of patients and prepared healthcare teams to improve care coordination.

In order for the VA to have adopted a mobile platform, it was necessary to build the mobile infrastructure. The VA contracted with Agilex to complete an analysis of VA systems, and make recommendations for implementing and supporting smartphone and tablet devices. This analysis considered the risks and issues associated with the implementation and management of various mobile devices within the VA’s infrastructure.

The ultimate goal is to create a seamless experience for patients and providers across multiple interfaces, delivering the right health information to the right person, in the right place, at the right time, and in the right (meaningful) manner.

The VA is developing a “VA App Store” to hold all of the mobile applications developed by the VA. Given that there are already many good applications available on the market, there will be a certification process for existing or planned non-VA applications to be included in the VA App Store.

The VA intends to leverage mobile technology to increase the frequency and quality of the interactions it has with its Veteran patients.