VOICES: Dayton living up to the task of leading the country for veteran needs

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

This line from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” brought to mind our veteran resources in the Miami Valley — and the need to create access for everyone.

A few years ago, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs asked 50 cities around the country to establish a Community Veteran Engagement Board with the goal of improving veteran services. Dayton was one of these cities. What an honor it was for us to be chosen to lead the way in the country. As we all know, this is a familiar position for Dayton.

Based on this request, a few community members came together along with the Dayton VA, Veteran Service Officers, Wright Patterson AFB, Disabled American Veterans, and the Strategic Ohio Council for Higher Education. We called ourselves the Greater Miami Valley myVeteran Community. We then put pen to paper and created a vision and a mission for our organization: to be a national leader in serving veterans. Our mission includes improving support to veterans, service members and their families by connecting regional veteran service providers, resources, advocates and other stakeholders. Pretty simple, right?

We decided to start by talking with veterans to better understand their needs. We visited college campuses, VFWs, American Legions and the Dayton VA to talk with as many veterans as possible. After talking with veterans of all ages, the primary need was clear: veterans needed help connecting with resources in our region. Though we have hundreds of veteran services organizations in the region, it is still very difficult for veterans to know where to find them.

Our next step was to create a charter that would give us direction. Our charter stated that we would advertise resources available to veterans and their families and we would facilitate forums where service providers can connect to improve outcomes.

To better identify and advertise resources, we teamed with the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area with the goal of expanding their very successful HelpLink 211 program that offers 24/7 assistance. We worked to create the VetsLink application of this same 24/7 call-in line where we could have veterans talk with veterans to share resources. Since its launch, VetsLink has assisted thousands of veterans connect with the resources they need. The most referred needs are rent payment assistance, utility assistance and food pantry information. The United Way tracks all referrals and ensures the agencies follow through with the care the veterans need. Our region is the only one in the country with this amazing service and we are working hard to spread this best practice across Ohio and beyond.

Based upon our discussions with veterans, we also developed an annual event held on the Wednesday before Labor Day called “Vets Moving Forward,” hosted by the Wright State University Veteran Military Center. This event is a large resources, job, and Dayton VA enrollment fair for area veterans. The next event will be held on May 25 and is free for veterans of all ages, resource agencies, and companies looking to employ veterans. You can learn more and sign up to join us at www.vetsmovingforward.org.

Our most recent initiative is a Military Task Force partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association of the Miami Valley that was generously funded through the Wright-Patt Credit Union Sunshine Community Fund. Statistics show that approximately 50% of our veterans in the region are 65 and older and are at higher risk for dementia. In addition, research indicates that people with traumatic brain injury or post traumatic stress may have a higher risk for dementia. The Military Task Force is working to create sustainable partnerships between the Dayton VA, Wright Patterson AFB and the Alzheimer’s Association and to educate our veterans on their risk as they age.

I’d like to thank all of my fellow veterans for their service and to wish them a happy Veterans Day. We remember those who have gone before us, our fellow veterans and those who don’t get to celebrate service with us on Veteran Day.

Cassie Barlow is president of the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education (SOCHE). She served two years as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base commander and leader of the 5,000 airmen within the 88th Air Base Wing.

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