The Role Of Community In Veteran Transition With Jim Dolan And Justin Miller

The Role Of Community In Veteran Transition With Jim Dolan And Justin Miller

OYM Jim | Veteran Transition

 

It has often been said that we are very good at sending people to war, but not as good at supporting them when they come back. This rings terribly true when you look at the vast percentage of military veterans who are struggling to make a smooth transition to civilian life. From finding gainful employment to dealing with mental issues, every aspect of a veteran’s life is a call for help that goes mostly unheard outside of veteran’s organizations. Seeing the need to address this, Jim Dolan of Illinois Joining Forces and Justin Miller of the USO Pathfinder Program are looking for support for these veterans in a more comprehensive way. For them, the missing link in veteran transition is community support. In each of their respective organizations, they are spreading awareness and spearheading initiatives to actively involve communities in doing their part to give these heroes the welcome they truly deserve. Join in on this episode as they share their brilliant insights on this topic with host Timothy J. Hayes.

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The Role Of Community In Veteran Transition With Jim Dolan And Justin Miller

Jim Dolan is Senior Director of Development for Illinois Joining Forces, IJF. Mr. Dolan joined the staff of IJF in the summer of 2016. He is responsible for assisting veterans and their families as they access community resources and for the statewide development of the veteran support community, the VSC initiative. He has been a member of IJF since its inception in 2012 as the Executive Director of the Laurus Foundation and the Cofounder of the Healer Warrior Initiative.

The Laurus Foundation began in 2008 with the mission to advance the lives of individuals with disabilities, with a focus on finding modalities that center on the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself. Jim and Dr. Frank Yurasek, PhD, Founded the Healer Warrior Initiative, HealerWarrior.us, a self healthcare training program teaching veterans to take better care of themselves, their families, and other veterans. Jim serves on the Board of Scientific and Professional Advisors for The National Center for Emotional Wellness, formerly the Institute for Traumatic Stress.

Jim also serves on the Board for Growing Healthy Veterans, a Lake County, Illinois-based nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans heal through farming, gardening, and agriculture. It’s to introduce them to the concepts of locally grown sustainable agriculture for themselves and their families, potential employment, and career opportunities in that field. Prior to his work with veterans, Jim has spent twenty years in the database business and applies this knowledge to build access to many community assets and resources that military members, veterans, and their families need and deserve.

Justin Miller served for nearly a decade in the US Army and deployed twice to Iraq. He separated from the service in January of 2013 and has been involved in the veteran network in and around the Chicago land area ever since. Justin is the Transition Program Manager at the USO, managing the USO Pathfinder Program for the State of Illinois. As part of a nineteen-site network across the nation, the USO Pathfinder Program provides a concierge-like approach to actively transitioning service members and their spouses. They work with the National Guard Reserve service members at any time due to their inherent nature of being in a constant state of transition.

Thank you for being here, Jim and Justin. It’s a pleasure and honor to be able to chat with both of you. Jim, I usually like to throw this open to people by asking what got you started in the work you’re doing and what drives your passion?

Glad to be on with both of you. A dozen years ago or so, I was asked to be the executive director of a foundation called the Laurus Foundation and the mission of it was to advance the lives of individuals with disabilities. Our definition of disabilities was deliberately broad. It was physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and developmental. As we began to work with some severe patients, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, we soon found out that those were the same injuries that military personnel were returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We began reaching out to the veteran community to share some of the learnings that we had gained. Since we were a small startup, we tried not to compete with some of the other organizations that were working with veterans and we’d look to find alternatives. We worked with doctors who were specialized in nutrition, chiropractic neurology, acupuncturist, and equine therapists. We looked everywhere. That fueled my passion because we found out that a lot of the solutions that we were coming across were applicable for veterans, and veterans were craving them.

That drove me to work more closely with veterans. In 2006, I joined Illinois Joining Forces as a staff member. Shortly after that, I got an opportunity to meet Justin, who works with the USO. I am now the senior director of development for Illinois Joining Forces and my task is to connect servicemembers, veterans, and their families in the State of Illinois to the resources that they need and deserve. Justin, in his position at the USO, does a similar thing with active duty. He can tell you more about that. That’s how our paths crossed. We became fast friends and have the same passion for serving servicemembers, veterans, and their families.

You hit the nail on the head, Jim. We both have that similarity. We’re both aligned professionally. He has that broader catchall for servicemembers, veterans, or families. The USO Pathfinder Program is the program that I manage. It’s hyper-focused on that transitional, directly from leaving the service and entering civilian life. We try to concentrate our resources around those that are still in and the programs and the advantages they can take off to do a successful transition out of the service. We give them those resources that they need to connect with their communities after they separate.

The great thing about our platform at the USO is that we have nineteen sites across the nation. For myself, I left the service in 2010 on active duty and I returned here to Chicago after about seven years of being stationed in Georgia and a couple of tours in Iraq. Those folks at Fort Stewart, Georgia didn’t have a lot of resources for me here in Chicago. It took my personal experience of transitioning home to a familiar place for me before I was a veteran, but an unfamiliar territory as a veteran. Not knowing where all your resources are, not knowing who to talk to about your experiences, and things like that.

Having a not so great transition myself, feeling that passion for what I do now. Where my passion comes from is my own personal experience through transition. Having that rough transition and looking back and saying, “I want to make sure that anybody that I come across that’s in that transition phase, I can help, so they don’t have to fall into the same pitfalls that I’ve fallen into and also learn how to dig out of.” That’s where my passion is coming from.

How do people find out about the services that you and Jim offer?

The best way to deliver support and services for veterans is at the community level. Click To Tweet

That’s a tough one. If we can answer that, that’s the golden question. For us at the USO, we benefit greatly by being a well-known brand when it comes to the military. I knew about the USO my big holiday is zero. When you enter the service and you go to the airport, the first thing you look for is a familiar USO center to help direct you to wherever your flight is going to be when you’re young and going right into the service. I knew the USO when I was deployed, and then also returning in those airport services.

That brand familiarization helps tie in all those visits to, “When are you separating? We have a program that’s designed to help you.” Ideally, where we want to have people find us is through our already well-known services that we serve those servicemembers with. There isn’t a 100% answer to that. We can’t catch every single person leaving the service. There isn’t an automatic email that goes out and says, “You need to check in with our USO Pathfinder Program.” That’s the tough nut to crack, but we do our best through familiar branding, I would imagine.

How does the Pathfinder Program reach out to people?

Here in Illinois, our case managers also do a lot of outreach. We’ll go to events, we’ll go support family days, and we serve in guard units and let them know about our program. I tend to brief the transition assistance classes that are mandatory, the DoD level. The Naval Station Great Lakes right here in the area has those classes. Post-COVID, those will be back into full swing. Generally speaking, once a month, we go and we speak to those transitioning servicemembers that are leaving the service that has to go through that mandatory five-day DoD training. That’s our best reach to those folks.

We have a similar challenge. We don’t have the brand recognition of USO. We’re a statewide organization. Illinois Joining Forces is a public-private partnership. It’s like any other company or any other enterprise marketing. What you do is the key to get the word out there, education and awareness. One of the things that both Justin and I do and we do well is to partner with other organizations. In our case, we have what we call a ground game or a ground campaign where we go into the communities. We call it the veteran support community initiative. We meet with folks who are doing this work.

That’s the other thing, Tim. There are people who have been toiling in the fields for years, serving veterans in their local communities with little recognition. They do it because they’re passionate about it. Both civilians and veterans themselves reaching back and helping other veterans. Through our partnerships with other organizations, and there are some known organizations, the American Legion, VFW, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the VA itself. We work with all of them to connect the dots.

Nationwide, this is an initiative that has been finally figured out. The best way to deliver services is at the community level and the only way to make that happen is to get into the community, get to know people, develop relationships and trust, and begin to communicate with one another. This is not just a single initiative for 2021. This is a plan that other states are adopting to be able to do this permanently. We need to be able to have a system in place so that the next time we deploy 250,000 or 400,000 troops and they come back, we know what we’re doing and we know how to take care of them.

To your point, Jim, this isn’t something that we can do overnight. This is something that I personally have been developing my veteran community here for more than a decade now. Jim, about the same time showing up to the community events, making sure people know who you are, being passionate about serving that community, and then finding yourself in a position to help serve them. For me, it’s been years of mission, passion, and timeline to get where I’m at and to be recognized at these events and trusted by people to say, “I’ve got someone that needs your help. I’m going to put you guys in touch because I know you’re going to take care of them.” The same goes for IJF. It’s not something that you can develop overnight, but it’s certainly something that if you’re passionate about.

Tim, I should have said at the beginning, I am not a veteran. I’m a civilian. My dad served in World War II, so I have that in my blood. I didn’t realize that I had grown up in a military family until I started working with veterans and I recognize the traits. Civilians play an incredible role in this. One, in particular, is there’s more of us. Less than 1% of the population serves in the military. If we leave it to just the military or the government, we’re lost. In fact, when we go out into the community, we quote Lincoln from his second inaugural where he said that, “We are to bind up the nation’s wounds. We are to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

When he said those words, we don’t think that he was talking about a federal bureaucracy. He wasn’t talking about the federal government. He was speaking then and we think he’s speaking now through history to every citizen in every community, in every state that we are to bind up the nation’s wounds. We are to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan. Getting the civilians involved, getting them educated, and connecting to them within the community is absolutely critical to this mission.

I have the same situation as you, Jim. My father, grandfather, brother, sister-in-law, and uncle’s in the military, but I did not serve. It’s all through our family history. One of the questions I had for you, Justin, is if you’ve got this Pathfinder Program and people find out about it a year before transitioning out. What’s one of the biggest hurdles you have to get over to get the veterans themselves to engage your services?

The biggest challenge that we face is that conditioning servicemembers and this is true for anybody going through any type of transition in their life. You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s what it comes down to. Most people assume that whatever is in front of them is exactly what they need to know. They can take that and run with it, but there are so many different facets to transition, especially leaving the military service. In order to process a transition successfully, you have to be able to dive into those different focus areas, address your VA benefits, address your employment, make sure that you’re thinking about education, and know that you have a VA home loan.

These are just examples I’m throwing out, but there are so many different facets of transition that a lot of people only get focused on employment. “I’ve got to get a job. My paycheck is about to run out. I need to make sure I get a paycheck for my family.” That’s well and good. That’s the top of the pyramid, but everything else underneath is a building block to that employment to make sure you’re stable in mental health. Make sure you have the education and the certifications to do the job or to get a job that you’re skilled in. All those things add up to that success.

OYM Jim | Veteran Transition
Veteran Transition: There are people who have been toiling in the fields for years, serving veterans in their local communities with very little recognition.

 

Helping people understand that transition isn’t just about one specific thing, whether that’s employment or education. There are multiple different areas that they need to make sure that they’re taking care of and they’re addressing that’s important. It’s a challenge for us to help them understand how important it is. We’re doing better at that. It’s easier to talk to somebody that’s six months post-separation, looking back and saying, “I wish I would have done A, B, and C.”

We tried to tell them now before they leave the service, “A, B, and C are important. Don’t just look at A.” We’re getting better at that through testimonials from past clients, from veterans that are speaking to that same transitioning group saying, “I was in your place a year ago. I wish I had done this, so make sure you focus on that.” Those are some of the tools that we can use to try to break down that barrier and make sure that people sign up for our services, so we can help them through their transition.

I would say that, Tim, from our angle, what we see is similar in that and there’s a term within the military to understand your operational environment. The operational environment in a combat theater and within the military is completely different than the operational environment in civilians. If I can take a second one of the analogies that we use to talk about why it’s sometimes difficult, which is a bookshelf analogy. Justin can tell you that in transition, if you start to reveal that you have issues that can delay your transition and your separation.

Frankly, some veterans lie. They say, “I’m not having any trouble. I’m not having any difficulty. I’m a hard charger. I’ve always been a hard charger. I’m good to go.” The other reason is that they don’t know yet that they may be having some issues. The bookshelf analogy is simple. The books lay on the shelves and there are bookends that keep the books upright. The bookends represent the structure within the military. You’re told where to be, what to wear, what to eat, and where to go. Most of your decisions are being made for you. That structure holds the books, holds the military personnel, and holds them together a little bit.

That structure and discipline are important. When they transition out, those bookends are taken away and for a period of time, those books are going to remain upright. All of the decisions that they now have to make, begin to multiply and add to that stress. The bookshelf gets shaken and all of a sudden, the book starts to fall apart. It can be that they didn’t lie when they left the military, but they hadn’t realized that they were struggling because that structure was still in place. The books were still upright, but life has a tendency to hit us in all directions.

Making sure that veterans are prepared for that, that they understand what the operational environment is going to be when they get back into civilian lives. To connect to organizations right away like USO, and then connect to a state organization like Illinois Joining Forces helps to ease that transition. The DoD is starting to get better at it, but they still don’t connect as well into the community as they should. Every veteran is going to return to some hometown somewhere. That’s where they need to get connected to their community.

If I can add to that, Jim, from a personal perspective of leaving the service, the mentality is mechanical when you’re in the service. You don’t think to take care of yourself in all the full spectrum of ways that you need to take care of yourself. You just say, “Am I in the right uniform? Am I showing up at the right time? Am I taking care of the people that I’m responsible for? Am I good to go, so my superior can check that box?” It’s mechanical in that way and you don’t think about, “Am I okay? What does that mean to me being okay?” For me, it means being the right uniform, but there’s so much more to that question if you ask yourself.

You don’t start discovering that conversation in your head until once you’re out of the service. For me, it was years afterward. I don’t necessarily regret it because now I’m able to take those experiences turnaround and help other people. If I didn’t have those pitfalls, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now. I can definitely tell you that it’s a transition period. It takes time to start asking yourself that question and giving yourself an actual full real answer. “Am I okay? If I’m not okay, is it okay to be not okay?” It’s that Hope For The Day motto of mental health that I preach quite often because I have experience in that.

You mentioned Hope For The Day. That’s Jonny Boucher out of Chicago. To highlight for people, Jonny was a person who had 9 or 10 people in his circle of friends commit suicide and he decided, “We got to do something about this.” They tried to raise awareness. Justin, you quoted their motto, “It’s OK Not To Be OK.”

I’m wearing it on my wrist every day. I asked myself this question because their motto is so poignant not only to servicemembers but everybody. Their Project R.E.D. focuses on the veteran. It’s funny, their offices are next door to my offices. When we’re not dealing with COVID and we’re working from our basements, I get to see Jonny Boucher once in a while, which is great. That statement, “It’s OK Not To Be OK,” resonates specifically with veterans that have to ask themselves that question and start giving themselves real answers after the bookends are taken off.

We want to open up the conversation because when you start looking at the numbers, the number of veterans that take their own lives is staggering. That happens and grows in secrecy.

I’ll share a story that I learned from Duc, a Vietnam veteran. It has as much to do with the civilian population, the communities, and our culture as it does with the veterans themselves. Suicide is not relegated just to the veteran community. It’s a pandemic as COVID. People are taking their lives in horrifying numbers across the globe. Part of it, we’ve talked about post-traumatic stress disorder. This veteran served in Vietnam and about 35 years after he returned, he got a call from a doctor asking if he remembered or recognized his name.

Every citizen has a duty to bind up the nation’s wounds. We have to care for those who have borne the burden of battle for us. Click To Tweet

He was Vietnamese. This veteran, Duc, was embedded in his home when he was in Vietnam. He wasn’t a doctor then. He was a young kid. He came over, went through, got his education, and swore that he would track down this veteran, and he did. He asked him if he’d like to go back to Vietnam with him. It was the first time he’d been back in almost 40 years. He did go back and it was cathartic for him. It was a transition in his entire life. He’s been back over a dozen times now and he’s brought back veterans with him so that if they were willing to go, they could have the same healing experience.

One of the things that Duc said when he was talking about this experience of going back to Vietnam is that the people in Vietnam, we’re not experiencing the severity of PTSD as much as the veterans from Vietnam who returned to America because they had a shared experience. They had experienced the trauma of war on their own land and they had done it in a way where they could relate to one another. You contrast that with our society where we’re more concerned than anybody else and all that other stuff. It trivializes. When they come back, there’s not that shared experience.

Educating the community as to what warfare is like. There’s only less than 1% that serve. That makes a big difference when someone comes back after experiencing war and the trauma of war. It was an incredible insight that Duc shared that the people in Vietnam were dealing with it differently because of that principle of shared experience. They were able to relate with one another and support one another. They were peers to one another. That’s one of the initiatives that we’re trying to put forth. Train more veterans to be peers to one another and to train the community members to recognize what the military culture and the military experience is all about.

It’s right on point that you mentioned that story, Jim because it’s more or less how I started with my own mental health. I’m asking myself that question, “Am I okay?” Giving myself an actual real answer, and then doing something about it. It all started after I read the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger. He’s a combat journalist and never served in the service, but was probably overseas more than the average servicemembers soldier, just documenting the history of the wars. He compares and contrasts wars nowadays with the American-Indian and how they went towards a tribe. The entire tribe moved to the frontlines and experienced that together. Exactly what you’re talking about, Jim, with the Vietnamese people.

I should also mention that he talks in the book about coming home to a society that doesn’t recognize their challenges, struggles, and any of the real issues they’re dealing with as they transition back into this society where everybody’s buried in their Smartphone’s and disconnected. Even though we’re incredibly connected with the internet now and all of our devices, we’re even more disconnected as human beings. It’s a short book, so I highly recommend it to everybody. Watch his YouTube. He’s got a TED Talk. I’m reading this book and I’m realizing that all the issues that I’m dealing with as a transitioning servicemember post-transition are almost normal.

According to this book, this is something I’m experiencing. Before reading that book, I thought it was my problem and I thought it was something like, “I need to go fix it because this is abnormal.” If you read this book and you read this historical telling and this experience that they have, it’s like, “That’s me and that’s normal. That’s okay to come home from war and experience life differently because nobody else around me understands that. They haven’t been and they haven’t experienced that. They’ve only seen it through the eyes of CNN or Global News, but they haven’t seen it from my experience. Nor do I want to burden them with my stories.”

I realized that everything that I was feeling wasn’t “abnormal.” I started seeking help for that and I started talking to my veteran peers about these same things like, “Do you experience this disconnect with everybody around you that isn’t a veteran and doesn’t understand the language?” As soon as I left the service, I went right into my education. Being surrounded by student veterans, that experience was shared by everybody around me, even though I didn’t know it until I asked that question. That gave me the strength to seek help with mental health, finding new ways to address those questions, and finding a good answer to the, “Am I okay,” question. That has been my core experience.

Justin, give us the book title again and the author, please.

Tribe by Sebastian Junger.

He has a TED talk as well.

I saw that first and I immediately went out and bought the book. You can read it on a 2.5 to 3-hour flight. I did that multiple times. The copy that I have has lots of notes in it. It is a great short book and I recommend it especially for civilians that don’t understand servicemembers and the transition and the experience that they have. It helps give you an insight into that.

There are lots of professionals that study this work, we know that actual trauma is one thing. What’s traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another. One of the things we know that amplifies the effects of trauma is what you’re talking about. If the environment I’m in doesn’t recognize, then it can be re-traumatizing. Every day, I have to go out and pretend that nothing happened. Jim, would you pull up?

Justin, I’m glad you mentioned this book. If you’re going to read any book about the war experience, and there are others, but this is the one to read. What he does is he gives a lesson in history, too. We’ve been doing this to one another for eons. We’ve been at war and human beings tend to do it. The Greeks knew. Justin mentioned the Native American culture. In the Native American culture, you could not return to the village immediately after a battle. You had to go through a ceremony and a ritual.

OYM Jim | Veteran Transition
Veteran Transition: Making sure that veterans understand what the operational environment is going to be when they get back and connect to organizations right away helps to ease their transition into civilian life.

 

Once the battle was over, you were taken out into the fields with the elders. You would go on a hunt for weeks at a time. You’d be able to decompress, relax, and be eating what you had haunted you. The elders would be telling stories. They would share it and at a certain point, they would be brought back into the village with ceremony and ritual so that they could cleanse from the experience and be welcomed back to take off their war feathers and to take off the war paint. Also, to be welcomed back as father, uncle, brother, and husband.

In our culture, we think we’re connected, but we’re not. We’re more fractured as a society and as a culture than we’ve ever been. Make sure that we understand that you have to be able to make that transition into becoming a civilian again and allow the veteran to go through that process. Now, you could be in Afghanistan and 48 hours later, you could be shopping for diapers in Walmart. That doesn’t work.

Part of it is the speed with which we expect people to get over it, snap your fingers, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and shake it off all that crap. That’s part of the military culture, too. Justin can tell you. There’s no whining when you’re in the military. Being able to recognize that you have these needs and that it’s okay to talk about them and to go through a process. Our culture does not have a process. We don’t have the education or the means or even sometimes, the temperament to be able to listen to the stories that need to be told so that these transitions can be made.

You couple that whole experience or that struggle with what you said, Jim. There’s no room for whining in the military. You’re wired not to complain. You’re wired to not worry about the small things, and then you associate that with mental health. “If I’m having a mental health struggle, I can’t whine about it and I can’t address it. I just need to power through it.” You have that mentality entering in this transition struggle and it is not a healthy mindset. At the end of the day, you struggle going through that transition, trying to find your way.

I was lucky that I had found a student veteran group. Right when I left the service, that kept me going. I surrounded myself with my tribe. That was my tribe when I exited the service. I was lucky enough to have that and I still struggled through my transition. If I was lucky enough to have my tribe with me and still going through those same struggles, I can’t imagine what some servicemembers are feeling when they’re leaving the service. They’re exiting into a community where they don’t have a tribe with them. Case in point why I do what I do now.

You layer on top of that, Tim, the isolation that resulted from COVID, where we’re separated from one another. That’s causing a tremendous amount of stress on the veteran population. I don’t want to be monolithic. There are veterans like Justin who will have transitioned. Even though they had struggles they’re doing well. He’s doing an outstanding job reaching back and serving other veterans, but there are quite a few that do struggle. This isolation that occurs is contributing to an increase in veteran suicide and suicide across the board.

We’re social beings. We’re not designed to be isolated one from another. One of the things, to get back to what Justin and I do on a daily basis, is to make sure that we’re listening and make sure that we’re getting the word out about the resources that are available both behavioral health resources and every other type of resource. Sometimes, we overcomplicate this. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes into play in a big way. We have a call center, so I’ll do our IJF commercial. Let Justin do the same. We have two combat veterans that man the phones at our care coordination center. That number is (833) INFO-IJF, (833) 463-6453.

Any veteran, family member, caregiver, or survivor can call that number and we will connect them to the resources. The interesting thing, Tim, is that only about 20% to 25% of the requests that we get have anything or whatsoever to do with military service. The other 75% to 80% of the requests are everyday stuff. “How do I pay my mortgage? How do I pay my rent? How do I pay for food? How do I get my kids into college? What do I do if my car breaks down?” You don’t need to be a trained psychologist or psychiatrist to be able to provide solutions to those kinds of problems. That’s where the community comes into play.

If somebody’s car breaks down and they’re unable to get to work because they can’t afford to fix the car and they lose their job, soon, things start to spiral out of control. A little bit of intervention and assistance at the right time can make a tremendous amount of difference. Some people who don’t leave a note about why they took their lives, if you examine their stories, there’s a way back to a point where things started to unravel. That’s why we want to be proactive to make sure that we’re getting people the assistance they need before things do start to unravel.

For us, we want to try to proactively engage those servicemembers, so they don’t leave the service with housing issues, financial issues, and things like that. At the end of the day, we can’t help every single person because a lot of people don’t reach out for help until it’s too late. If we can impact the lives of 200 to 300 veterans every year through our program, then that’s perhaps 200 or 300 veterans that don’t have to go to IJF so they can focus on the folks that have serious needs and needs to be addressed. We talked about financial readiness, housing, and legal. “What are you going to do after you leave the service to have a paycheck? Is your education lined up with the employment that you want?”

I’m glad that my team is comprised of myself as a combat veteran and Mike Baumann, who’s a combat medic. We’re both in the army. We have a military spouse on our team, Megan Philpot and her husband’s an active-duty Navy recruiter. We pride ourselves on having that background. We can speak to spouses and we can speak to transitioning servicemembers and sometimes, help them set more realistic expectations. I hate to say it, but a lot of service members will leave the service with that sense of entitlement. “I’m a veteran. I’m going to walk right into middle management. I don’t need a four-year degree.”

We have a conversation with them like, “The civilian world is different. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you’re credentialed to do it in the eyes of Corporate America or whomever you want to walk in and have a job with. You’ve got to get that four-year degree. You’ve got to make sure that you have a budget now because your life is going to be different. Uncle Sam is no longer going to be paying for your housing allowance and your food allowance and all these other things.”

There is hope. Don't do it alone. Connect to people so that they can support you and you can support them. Click To Tweet

The point that you’re making is that many of our veterans went in young. They didn’t have time out in the civilian world to develop all those skills that most of us slog our way through our twenties, gaining bits of knowledge here and there. Let me ask Jim. You were talking about some questions that were posted on a Facebook group. I want to make sure we have some time to have you address some of that. You said some of those people responded with some wonderful answers.

Justin and I do it. We’re learning to do it better. The key is to make sure to listen to the veterans instead of thinking that we have all the answers. Not every veteran’s experience is the same. Some are heroes and some are broken. It runs the spectrum. The Vietnam Era experience is different from than the post 9/11 experience. Listening to the veterans is incredibly important. One of our great partners that Justin and I work with here in Chicago is Chicago Veterans. It’s a large organization. It’s homegrown where they began to come together. They have a Facebook page. ChicagoVets.org is their website. Any veteran in the Chicago land area should know about them and get connected to those veterans.

On their Facebook page, this question was posted by another veteran and the question is, “What do you think holds most veterans back from living their ideal life after serving?” There are quite a few answers. Justin was able to relate to most. As a veteran, I was able to relate because I had heard these answers before. One of them that was most telling was the last one, Justin. It says, “I believe that, for most, they don’t even know what their ideal life is. Their identity is wrapped up in the uniform and they don’t know who they are when they’re not wearing it. There is a loss of purpose when we leave. A couple of that with MST, Military Sexual Trauma, PTS, Post Traumatic Stress, and identity crisis, and you have the perfect storm. Life has to have meaning and purpose or it’s not worth living. That is your root cause both for living your ideal life and for preventing suicide.” That was written by a veteran. Nathan wrote that. It’s the last one that was on the post. It summed up most of what others shared as well.

There’s a loss of identity, a loss of purpose. Purpose and direction are critical. USO, as they grab hold of the veteran, begins to show them you can have purpose and direction after you take off this uniform. Your identity is not wrapped up in what you once were or what you once wore. It’s based on what you want to do and what animates you and what your purpose is. The key is to make sure that we, as a society, recognize the military culture and afford people the opportunity to find purpose and direction again.

There are some wonderful ways for people to build a sense of purpose. If you have some structure, people say, “How do I find my purpose?” There are people who studied that. I could name three and we’ll talk about it in our next interview. We can make these resources available to people. How do I figure out what my purpose in life is? It could be, how do I build one? Some people build their purpose based on trying to help other people get through their worst trauma. Some people build their purpose based on the things they love to do and the things they’re naturally good at. We’ll talk about that another time.

Before Justin weighs in and I’ll point to him. There isn’t a single answer to it. It would require an entirely other conversation. You can tell me if I’m wrong, Justin. In the military, there’s a service ethos, a service ethic. I would venture to say that Justin’s progress and success, is the result of his servant’s heart. He has begun to serve others, which has given him purpose and direction. One thing that veterans should never forget is that they were trained to serve and there are opportunities to serve again that can lead to that ideal life.

Luckily, I was able to fall into my student veteran chapter through Student Veterans of America. During my undergrad program, they were in need of leadership. I was fresh off the boat, as they say. I had droves of leadership still with my stripes. I walked in as the NCO that I knew I was and I said, “I can lead this group. This is a pass that I’m willing to stand up for.” That became a passion, that leadership, serving my fellow veterans in a different way because we’re in the civilian world. It became my passion and that drove me.

We talked about purpose. For me, trying to find purpose in a couple of different facets of life is daunting, especially when the military gives you purpose from day one. You raise your hand, you say no, and now you have a purpose. When you leave the service, you need to find purpose again. For me, I Googled, “How do I find my purpose?” I came across this Purpose Venn Diagram, that four circles. The top circle is what you love doing. The left circle is what you are good at. The south circle is what you can be paid for. The last circle is what the world needs. You take those four questions and you Venn diagram those four circles to where they meet right in the middle. A couple of that overlap will give you profession and will give you passion. A few of that overlap will give you a mission and a few of that overlap will give you vocation. If you can find the center of all four of those where they cross over, that’s purpose.

What I did is I printed out that Venn Diagram. I have a mechanical thought process. It’s from the military. It’s still with me. I love it because I’m in tune with it. I printed that out and I put a dot where I thought I was at the time. Right where that dot is and one of the outside circles that I’m figuring out, “Where do I need to go to get to that middle? What other circles do I have to identify for myself?” Those questions aren’t easy questions to answer. They take time.

When you’re in the military, you’re used to answering questions rapidly. You have a few decisions but the decisions that you make in the military can be as important as life and death. You’re used to rapid decision making. I will say to my fellow service members and veterans that are leaving the service, it’s okay to take some time and journey through your life to figure out what your purpose is. Start identifying things that you’re good at, what you can get paid for, what you’re passionate about, and what the world means. That way, you’re solving things on multiple different levels. Maybe it makes that journey of purpose a little bit easier. That’s my two cents anyway.

Let me ask you, Jim. Any closing comments or questions, things that are popping into your head that we should mention before we wrap this up?

The word is hope, that’s what people need first. When we deal with some of the younger ducks that we’ve dealt with in the past, trying to deal with veterans who are struggling, you don’t want to give them false hope. We’re like, “Hope is the first thing that you give people.” People are smart enough to recognize that they can hold two thoughts in their head at the same time. There are no guarantees but there is always hope. Connecting to other veterans like Justin, Chicago Veterans, and others who had their struggles, who have been able to transition, will give you hope. My mantra would be to get connected. Sometimes they forget their training. Nobody does this alone. In the military, that’s the first thing you’re taught. The same is true in civilian life. Don’t do it alone. Connect to people so that you can learn from them so that they can support you and you can support them. The mantra is hope. There is always hope.

I need to add to that because as somebody who’s been doing therapy for years, I’ve been around long enough to know that we went through decades where people told us that if you had a trauma or a brain trauma, that’s it. For Life, that’s chronic, “You’re stagnant and we have to throw meds at you or warehouse you eventually.” Over the last few decades, I’ve watched them develop phenomenal treatments for trauma. I’ve had people who’ve had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and bipolar disorder and all these other things. When they’re willing and they engage in proper tools, their life transforms, they’re not warehoused, they’re not on meds, and they have a sense of purpose, value, and joy in their life. There is hope.

OYM Jim | Veteran Transition
Veteran Transition: It’s okay to take some time to figure out what your purpose is and start identifying things that you’re good at and passionate about.

 

It’s because we’re human beings, we’re designed specifically to heal. We can heal.

Amazingly so. If you’re looking for some help, resources like Justin Miller with the USO and Jim Dolan at Illinois Joining Forces, also if you’re going for a professional, do what you can to find somebody who has Integrative Health, Functional Health, or Holistic Functional Medicine as their title. Those are people who are going to look at all kinds of resources from a whole perspective, seeing you as a system as an individual, fitting into systems in your family and your community, and you’ll get far more benefits far more quickly dealing with those professionals. I am going to invite you both back for another interview. Thank you. I appreciate the time. It’s been a blessing. We’ll talk again soon.

I gave my commercial, 833-INFO-IJF, 833-4636-453, is how you can reach Illinois Joining Forces. Justin, if you want to go ahead and let them know how they can reach you.

If you are in the service, serving the National Guard Reserves and Military spouse that separated, that’s that focus area we look, that timeline, go to USO.org/pathfinder. You can find all of the information that you need. USO.org/transition also works. It’ll bring you to the same landing page. Above all else, if you’re looking for help, seek help. Have hope, for sure. From a personal perspective, it’s a motto and it’s cliché but it does ring true, it’s okay not to be okay. Have hope. That is the saying that rings true. I spent two years doing outreach for Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center. They specifically address mental health outpatient needs for veterans and their families. If you need help, you don’t know where to go, you can call me. You can reach out to Road Home. You can reach out to IJF. You can reach out to any of these things and it’s okay. Pick up the phone and have a conversation. We will make sure that you get the help that you need.

I honor you both and thank you for your time.

Jim Dolan is Senior Director of Development for Illinois Joining Forces, IJF. Mr. Dolan joined the staff of IJF in the summer of 2016. He is responsible for assisting veterans and their families as they access community resources and for the statewide development of the veteran support community, the VSC initiative. He has been a member of IJF since its inception in 2012 as the Executive Director of the Laurus Foundation and the Cofounder of the Healer Warrior Initiative.

The Laurus Foundation began in 2008 with the mission to advance the lives of individuals with disabilities, with a focus on finding modalities that center on the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself. Jim and Dr. Frank Yurasek, PhD, Founded the Healer Warrior Initiative, HealerWarrior.us, a self healthcare training program teaching veterans to take better care of themselves, their families, and other veterans. Jim serves on the Board of Scientific and Professional Advisors for The National Center for Emotional Wellness, formerly the Institute for Traumatic Stress.

Jim also serves on the Board for Growing Healthy Veterans, a Lake County, Illinois-based nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans heal through farming, gardening, and agriculture. It’s to introduce them to the concepts of locally grown sustainable agriculture for themselves and their families, potential employment, and career opportunities in that field. Prior to his work with veterans, Jim has spent twenty years in the database business and applies this knowledge to build access to many community assets and resources that military members, veterans, and their families need and deserve.

Justin Miller served for nearly a decade in the US Army and deployed twice to Iraq. He separated from the service in January of 2013 and has been involved in the veteran network in and around the Chicago land area ever since. Justin is the Transition Program Manager at the USO, managing the USO Pathfinder Program for the State of Illinois. As part of a nineteen-site network across the nation, the USO Pathfinder Program provides a concierge-like approach to actively transitioning service members and their spouses. They work with the National Guard Reserve service members at any time due to their inherent nature of being in a constant state of transition.

Mr. Miller serves on the Board for Roll Call Chicagoland and has been a volunteer with the organization since its inception in 2017. He was selected into the Communications Chair role in 2018. He has been selected to serve as Vice-Chair of Operations to further the organization’s efforts of bringing together the military-connected community to cultivate the professional network in the greater Chicagoland area.

He also serves on the Board for SVA Illinois, a regional model for the national Student Veterans of America organization due to his first-hand experience as a student veteran. As the Director of Strategic Initiatives, Justin helps the organization find new ways to support and sustain student veterans through their education here in Illinois. By way of new programs, growth strategies, and staff expansion.

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About Jim Dolan

Jim Dolan, Senior Director of Development, Illinois Joining Forces (IJF)

Mr. Dolan joined the staff of IJF in the summer of 2016. He is responsible for assisting Veterans and their families access community resources and for the statewide development of the Veteran Support Community (VSC) Initiative. He has been a member of IJF since its inception in 2012 as the Executive Director of the Laurus Foundation and the co-founder of the Healer Warrior Initiative.

The Laurus Foundation began in 2008 with the mission to advance the lives of individuals with disabilities with a focus on finding modalities that center on the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself. Jim and Dr. Frank Yurasek, Ph.D., L.Ac. founded the Healer Warrior Initiative (www.healerwarrior.us), a self-health care training program teaching Veterans to take better care of themselves, their families, and other Veterans.

Jim serves on the board of scientific and professional advisers for The National Center for Emotional Wellness (formerly, The Institute for Traumatic Stress). Jim also serves on the board for Growing Healthy Veterans, a Lake County, IL-based non-profit dedicated to helping veterans heal through farming, gardening, and agriculture; and, to introduce them to the concepts of locally grown, sustainable agriculture for themselves and their families and potential employment and career opportunities in the field.

Prior to his work with Veterans, Jim spent 20 years in the database business and applies this knowledge to build and access the many community assets and resources that military members, Veterans, and their families need and deserve.

About Justin Miller

Having served for nearly a decade in the US Army and deploying twice to Iraq, Justin Miller separated from the service in January of 2013 and has been involved in the veteran network in and around the Chicagoland area ever since.

Justin is currently the Transition Program Manager at the USO, managing the USO Pathfinder program for the state of Illinois. As part of the 19-site network across the nation, the USO Pathfinder program provides a concierge-like approach to actively transitioning service members and their spouses and works with Guard and Reserve service members at any time due to their inherent nature of being in a constant state of transition.

Mr. Miller serves on the board for Roll Call Chicagoland and has been a volunteer with the organization since its inception in 2017. He was selected into the Communications Chair role in 2018 and has most recently been selected to serve as Vice-Chair of Operations to further the organization’s efforts of bringing together the military-connected community to cultivate the professional network in the Greater Chicagoland Area.

He also serves on the board for SVA Illinois, a regional model of the national Student Veterans of America organization, due to his first-hand experience as a student veteran. As the Director of Strategic Initiatives, Justin helps the organization find new ways to support and sustain student veterans through their education here in Illinois by way of new programs, growth strategies, and staff expansion.

When Justin isn’t giving back to his military and veteran-connected communities, he enjoys working on DIY projects at his home in the west suburbs of Chicago, watching Cubs games, and taking his family on weekend trips to Wisconsin and Michigan. He is an avid supporter and promoter of mental health, especially among veterans, and lives by two mottos: Try everything twice, and don’t sweat the small stuff!

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