Helping veterans Ways to improve transition process discussed

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U.S. District 3 Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-West Point) stopped by the Waypoint Griffin veterans resource center Tuesday to speak to center director Sandra Brownlee on ways to help service members successfully transition from the military back into civilian life.

Ferguson described the process of transitioning from the military to civilian life as a “disconnect.”

“When you get discharged from the armed services, it’s a checklist, pat on the back,” he said. “‘Here you go, go out into the world’ and there’s no meaningful transition from active duty into the private sector.”

Brownlee, a retired master sergeant and Persian Gulf War veteran, stressed that the military doesn’t make transitioning a priority — but it should. Service members need direction and help as they get back into civilian life — whether it’s job training, housing, education, counseling, health care or other needs.

“I think there’s an obligation we have to help people transition from armed services into the private sector,” Ferguson said. “I’ve seen that with some of my children’s friends who have gone through the armed services and tried to assimilate into the private sector. It’s a brutal transition — and there’s tough issues following combat.”

Ferguson said that the government should be more proactive in its approach. It’s makes more sense to do as much for service members before they are discharged rather than wait until they are out of the military.

“If we’re spending a tremendous amount of money taking care of veterans in a reactionary way, would that not be better spent proactively?,” he said. “Veterans are coming to you (WayPoint) but this is a long time after that discharge.”

Ferguson’s District Director James Ruvalcaba, who is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel with 24 years (including a combat tour in Iraq), said the military needs to reset its expectations about transitioning — and service members have to take the process seriously. Often, service members don’t put much thought into their life after the military and don’t prepare as much as they should, such as making sure they have copies of all their records.

“It’s a stressful time going through the (transition) process and you may not care about it now but get a copy of your records now,” Ruvalcaba said. “We need to reset the expectations but we need to make sure we let them know that these programs are not a joke.”

Brownlee also stressed that service members need help before they leave the service. Even if a commanding officer wants to help a soldier prepare for life after the military, they often can’t because of manpower and budget issues.

“Because of downsizing of the military, you’re not going to get your replacements to allow your people the opportunity to transition out the way they need to do,” Brownlee said. “That’s one of the reasons why I want to do this program on this side of the fence.”

Brownlee said ideally, the transition process should be nine months and the Army should give soldiers at least 90 days before they’re discharged “but it’s not happening,” she said.

Ruvalcaba added that “every commander has a unit to run. They don’t give it what it’s due. They need that body to do that mission,” rather than focus on helping their service members get ready for civilian life.

He also said in the Marine Corps, the transition process is one year but it’s “at the commander’s discretion.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, Brownlee said she appreciated the chance to speak with Ferguson and Ruvalcaba.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “I’ve very glad it’s receiving notice for what we’re going. We’re just trying to take care of folks. The more people know, the more people can help.

Upcoming events

Brownlee is planning a summit Feb. 10 at UGA-Griffin with representatives from Fort Benning and Fort Stewart attending.

“My goal is to explain to them that we do here,” she said. “There is a Soldier for Life Center on Fort Benning but I’m going to be honest with you. It sucks because those folks are there just to check off on your roster and say you’re out processed. No one is going to walk you through that process to help you understand what you need to do once you get out here (in civilian life).”

Ferguson’s district office is planning a veterans workshop Feb. 22 in Fayetteville.

“We’re going to sit down with military installations here in Georgia and our combined services for veterans to see how we can come together to create a cohesive way to transition,” Ruvalcaba said.

Waypoint Griffin’s mission

Since the center opened some six months ago, Waypoint Griffin has helped 761 veterans as of Friday, Jan. 13. More than 300 have been Vietnam veterans but ages have ranged from World War II to the current Global War on Terror.