By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneSeptember 25, 2009
Helping veterans is a community-wide effort in Huntsville.
And, among the organizations that assist veterans, Still Serving Veterans has made a niche for itself by providing "the caring and understanding counseling" sought by veterans of all ages who need help in reintegrating into their communities.
"Support from the community is what really makes us successful," SSV executive director Werner Baker said. "Huntsville is such a great military community and Redstone is really a great post. Funding is critical to our programs. But we've been fortunate that Huntsville is a giving community. We have wonderful support."
That support is much appreciated by SSV as it works to make each veteran, and especially each wounded warrior, successful at what often becomes the most difficult task in their return to civilian society - finding a way to support their families.
"We take care of all veterans," Baker said. "But our main emphasis is on young wounded warriors. We do not turn any veteran away who walks in our door. We provide all of them with job development and job training, and we work closely with their families. It doesn't do just to help the veteran and let the family walk out the door without that same support. We are all about helping to keep these families together."
Baker said the Huntsville community - including commercial establishments, government contractors and individuals - has come forward to provide financial support for SSV services and programs during its three years of operations. Fund-raising events, such as the upcoming golf tournament sponsored in support of SSV by Analytical Services on Oct. 2 at Cherokee Ridge Golf Course, make a difference in the type of support SSV can provide.
"Eighty-seven percent of our funds is invested directly into veteran services," Baker said. "We manage the money that the public entrusts us with and it goes to the service of the veterans. It's a community effort. It's the whole community that comes together to assist the veteran."
Although there are many local organizations assisting veterans, SSV provides veterans one-on-one counseling, unconditional acceptance, and a vast knowledge of veteran services and benefits. SSV has assisted more than 1,050 veterans and families in the past three years. Of those, 110 have been employed as a result of SSV services, 519 veterans and widows have been assisted with VA benefits, 584 have received counseling for post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, and 126 have been involved in job training and seminars. About $8 million in increased benefits and salaries have been gained by veterans with the help of SSV.
SSV has recently been named a center of excellence by the Veterans Coalition Innovation Center.
"They were looking for good organizations and good ideas, and they noticed us," said SSV president Will Webb. "We are an example of best practice.
"Our focus is on reintegration. There are three phases of wounded warrior support - recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration. Recovery and rehabilitation have improved greatly with funding through the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration. But reintegration - mostly job training and placement - is a local effort that needs grassroots support."
SSV provides veterans with long-term, career development; job transitioning assistance; coaching, guiding and counseling; a clearinghouse for existing federal and state services; and assistance obtaining VA and other benefits. The organization sponsors job fairs, makes presentations to veterans and community groups, and works with local hospitals and agencies to provide information on VA benefits and issues.
"One of our innovations is to help veterans and wounded warriors integrate into new careers and new communities. We also can help spouses with reintegration," Webb said.
Job counseling is one of the most sought after offerings of SSV.
"We assist veterans to give them the tools so they can function in an interview, develop a resume and learn how to communicate their credentials," Baker said. "With veterans, the critical need is jobs. We are a clearinghouse. We connect the dots between agencies - both state and federal - that can help. We facilitate. Part of our success is that we are able to connect veterans with the right functions to get them the services they need."
Caring, patient and understanding counselors are crucial to the process, he said.
"Severely wounded Soldiers have lived through trauma that can make them not as able psychologically or emotionally to wade through bureaucracy or paperwork. They need an experienced counselor who knows where the benefits are, what they are eligible for and where to go for more help," Baker said.
Although most of the organization's veterans are residents of North Alabama or South Tennessee, SSV also assists veterans from out-of-state via phone and e-mail communication.
"Out-of-state veterans will see our website and call us for help," Webb said. "We can't really give them the local help they need. But we can help leverage many services for them and help them wade through the burden of paperwork and finding services to help them. We can help them deal with their frustrations and work with them through the processes."
SSV was formed in response to the large number of wounded warriors who needed assistance with re-entry into the civilian work force. Its office on Johnson Road is welcoming, a place where veterans can relax and unwind. Its staff consists of Baker, Webb, Bill Koch, Grant Rosensteel and Stephanie Carabarch. Several volunteers also assist, but volunteers are still needed for grant writing and web development.
"Helping a vet is everybody's business in this office," Baker said. "We don't ever turn them away.
"We want to spend quality time with them and give them the quality and excellence in services they so deserve. We want to be a one-stop shop for them. Our staff will listen to them and assess their situation and figure out what agencies can help them. When they leave here, we want them to know there is hope, that there is something out there for them, that they can reach their goals and dreams."
SSV has developed partnerships with a host of companies and agencies, including the Huntsville Rehabilitation Foundation, Hudson-Alpha, Semper Fi Task Force, the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, Analytical Services and Redstone's Community Based Health Care Organization.
"It takes the community and all those resources to bring to fruition a veteran's dreams," Baker said. "We are here for veterans as long as they need us, and they can come back to us whenever they do need us. We foster a lifelong relationship with the veterans we serve."
SSV has found its success in the success of the veterans it assists.
"The great news is if we can help even one person, we've done our job," Webb said. "The bad news is there are so many wounded warriors and families out there who need our help and who live in communities that don't have an organization like Still Serving Veterans to help them with job counseling, resume development and internships. Many of these young men and women have absolutely no idea how to convert military skills into a resume and a job."
Editor's note: Still Serving Veterans can be reached at 883-7035 or its website at stillservingveterans.org. For information on the SSV golf tournament, call Shannon Nelson at 562-2135.