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Navigating the Sea of Veteran Services

By: Holly Christy
MAE&T Correspondent

The end of the draft in 1973 signaled many a big change for servicemembers and veterans. With an all-volunteer force, numbers dropped dramatically—so much so that in recent years, only about one half of one percent of the American population is serving in the military. Among other things, that means that those in uniform have seen multiple combat tours, and face a ‘disconnect’ with their non-military peers in the civilian workforce whose career paths haven’t been detoured or put on hold by military service. When today’s servicemember is transitioning out of the military, career prospects can sometimes be bleak—whereas they might have been promising had one followed a non-military career path—and necessary services can seem elusive. Those who have not served in the military, motivated by a sense of appreciation or any number of other factors, becomed incensed when they hear about veterans not getting necessary care; they feel a sense of outrage on behalf of those who did volunteer to serve.

Public outrage often drives political solutions, and that is the case in today’s atmosphere. As a result of people clamoring to take better care of our veterans, more non-profits and veterans services have come onto the scene than ever before, as well as unheard of amounts of funding for such programs. So how is it that with this enormous increase in funding for veterans programs, there are still complaints and horror stories of veterans not getting the services they need, and deserve?

According to Ilario Pantano, senior director for programs and services at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF), “The problem is not a lack of services—there are literally thousands of entities that want to help veterans. The biggest challenge today is navigating the sea of services. There are so many services its bewildering.” In fact, a recent IVMF survey of more than 8,500 transitioning servicemembers shows that one of the chief struggles this population faces is navigating all the available benefits. Jim McDonough, managing director of IVMF explained, “In recent years, the landscape has become littered with heartfelt approaches of people who want to help veterans.”

In a white paper titled “Driving Community Impact: The Case for Local, Evidence-Based Coordination in Veteran and Military Family Services and the AmericaServes Initiative,” the IVMF says, “A clear gap in services for veterans and military families persists across America. Contrary to what most might expect, however, this gap is far from a lack of public concern, resources, or programmatic effort. The “Sea of Goodwill” (Copeland & Sutherland, 2010) toward those who have voluntarily chosen to wear our nation’s cloth appears deep and teeming with life—for now. Rather, the gap lives between the public, private, and nonprofit organizations that serve them. Put simply, the leading gap in veterans and military family services is not a lack of resources or capacity, but a lack of collaboration, coordination, and collective purpose.”

So the services and the goodwill exist, but it’s difficult for servicemembers to feel confident accessing them because there is little cohesiveness or coordination amongst the service providers or agencies. A veteran might need housing, employment services, counseling, or family care, but knowing who to turn to and how to go about it can be extremely overwhelming, resulting in too many veterans not being served. McDonough explained that the thought process at IVMF was, “It has to be possible to put all this service capacity into a network design, so someone whose needs are multiple and overlapping can be served in a more coordinated manner.” The solution they developed is AmericaServes, an umbrella organization with regional care centers that serves as a singular point of entry for veterans to access the services they require.

According to the AmericaServes website, “Our vision is twofold. First, is that every servicemember, veteran, and their family can easily access the full range of comprehensive services required to achieve their unique goals, and to provide a first-class service experience to match service member and veterans’ first-class service to our nation. Second, is that all public, private, and non-profit organizations serving veterans are accountable to one another and should embrace formalized communication, coordination, and transparency.”

How does it work? AmericaServes is supported by a back-end technological platform that allows network providers to securely communicate with one another, and work together to serve veterans and their families. When a veteran or family member joins AmericaServes, a referral request which includes information on eligibility for specific programs and services is created and centrally managed on the AmericaServes Platform. The AmericaServes Coordination Center, a centralized team of AmericaServes employees which handles all referrals within the Network, reviews the referral request and identifies the most appropriate network provider(s) to serve the individual in need of services. The AmericaServes Coordination Center ensures that veterans and their families are referred only to those programs and organizations for which they are truly eligible. All referrals are made via the AmericaServes Platform, and their progress and success are monitored and recorded. This way, veterans aren’t being referred carelessly for things they don’t need or aren’t qualified to receive, and service providers are free to focus on what they do best without the requirement to refer veterans to other providers for other kinds of services.

AmericaServes initially began its work in New York following a challenge from the Robin Hood Foundation to create a better answer for the city’s military and veteran families who were struggling to access benefits. McDonough said the challenge required IVMF to “get providers on board, build the network, fund it, award it, run it, measure it, then grow and support it.” After a successful launch in New York, the AmericaServes program has spread to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and it’s preparing to launch in Washington as well.

North Carolina laid the groundwork for a successful AmericaServes program by initially cataloging all the available service providers on the NC4Vets website; coordinating through the Governor’s Working Group on Veterans, Service Members, and Their Families; and building on the work of the Charlotte Bridge Home—a local nonprofit that was recognized as a “best practice.” North Carolina’s AmericaServes program, called NCServes-Metrolina, recently celebrated one year of providing services to area veterans. State agencies, community leaders, local nonprofits, charities, and philanthropic partners agreed that while each entity was successful at serving veterans and their families within their respective organizations, the community had an obligation to strive towards greater impact through a common agenda and formal coordination of services, resources, and care. In the last year, the NCServes-Metrolina program connected more than 1,200 unique Charlotte-area veterans and military family members to over 2,800 unique types of services, care, and resources available within this vibrant community.

There are several factors that contribute to this kind of success—the support of a long-standing friend of the veteran community, network technology that makes it possible to coordinate and track outcomes, philanthropic entities looking to make important changes, and working in areas where the conditions are right.

Syracuse University has a strong history of supporting our military and veterans, and plays an important role in establishing AmericaServes. Following WWII, the university opened its doors to returning servicemembers and doubled its student body overnight. The years since have seen continued efforts to support and improve the lives of military members, veterans, and their families. In 2011, Syracuse partnered with JPMorgan Chase to create the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, whose mission is to “advance the post-service lives of America’s servicemembers, veterans and their families by focusing across the full spectrum of their social, economic and wellness concerns to deliver class-leading educational and vocational programs, conduct actionable and national impacting research and policy analysis, and provide valued technical assistance, advisory support and expertise.” Pantano explained that IVMF “saw the disjointedness of the universe of veterans’ services, and is applying some real horsepower to it through AmericaServes.” He added, “When IVMF is involved, you bring an expert with significant pedigree and heart to the equation.”

The AmericaServes solution is based on a network platform developed by technology partners Accenture and Unite US. Whereas it used to be that there was no way for the various federal, state, municipal, county, for profit and nonprofit entities to work together to share information and serve veterans, AmericaServes’ technology makes it possible for coordinating entities like NCServes-Metrolina to track, fulfill, and follow up on each request for service. “This approach keeps track of every ‘transaction’ to measure outcomes,” McDonough said. “There is built in accountability for actually getting the services in the hands of those who need them.”

All this is made possible by grants from the Walmart Foundation, who McDonough said “funds the credentialed social workers, the networking of services, all of it.” He explained that the discerning philanthropic population is paying attention to what works, and that “the role of philanthropic investment is to seed innovation.”

The Walmart Foundation echoed this sentiment in its 2016 Global Responsibility Report, saying that it is “focusing on strengthening the regional and state ecosystems that serve veterans and military families.” The foundation has invested $20 million over five years in collective impact initiatives to help support and integrate returning servicemembers. Among these initiatives is IVMF’s AmericaServes program, which they explain, “will offer veterans a coordinated way to access a suite of reliable local services for job placement, housing, health care and other services they may need.” This is good for the veteran, the local region, and far beyond. The Global Responsibility Report said, “As veterans reintegrate into society, everyone benefits. Veterans provide businesses with extraordinary assets and talent as hard-working, high-skilled people with strong leadership potential. Swift reintegration also enhances the stability of veterans’ families and communities, strengthening the U.S. workforce, and preserving the volunteer military in the U.S.”

Pantano agreed. “When you bring a third party actor into the room with the Walmart Foundation’s funding,” he said, “IVMF’s expertise, Unite US and Accenture’s technology—aand you see how the model works—you get buy-in from the state level players.” In fact, that buy-in is part of what IVMF looks for when developing self-selected regions for the AmericaServes program. They’re expanding in areas where the state leadership recognizes the importance of Collective Impact, where there is a supportive philanthropic sector, and where providers are open to innovation. The existing service providers, of which there are likely to be many, have to be willing to acknowledge that there must be a better way to work together toward their common goal of serving veterans. “Communities self-select by virtue of their action and coordination,” Pantano said. McDonough added, “You have to work sleeves-up in these communities to get providers to come out and say how hard it is to make blind referrals.”

From a user’s point of view, the AmericaServes model should make accessing veterans services less confusing and overwhelming, and more personal and comprehensive. The new network in South Carolina (SCServes-Low Country) for instance, “enables servicemembers, veterans, and their families to digitally access a comprehensive array of services, resources, and care through online self-referral, by phone, or in person.” Pantano described the difference as being like that of a food court versus a full-service restaurant. Whereas before, veterans might find themselves trying to navigate the endless services found through a Google search of “veterans benefits,” AmericaServes brings a knowledgeable expert alongside to explain what exactly they are eligible for and provide help through the process, with follow-up and accountability.

The IVMF hopes that veterans and military members will be encouraged by the knowledge that AmericaServes is out there—that their frustrations about the challenges of navigating a complex transition have been heard and understood. “We are doing something with them in mind to make it better and easier for them to get connected with services,” said McDonough. While AmericaServes isn’t everywhere, it is slowly spreading, and that is good news for veterans. According to Pantano, “When veterans hear that there truly are people who want to help them, and there are good services available, it’s an incredible boost—they aren’t victims, they’re victors!”
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