SHERIDAN — The Sheridan Veterans Affairs Health Care System recognizes the need to connect veterans with employers in the community. The Sheridan VA staff also understand the need hasn’t been fully met in Sheridan County. To encourage a solution, the VA made it the focus of its annual mental health summit held Thursday.
By the numbers
Wyoming VA spent $19,743 for education, vocational rehabilitation and employment in fiscal year 2016, its third-highest expenditure that year behind medical care and compensation and pensions. Unemployment rates in 2017 dropped for veterans from 4.3 percent to 3.7 percent nationwide.
Among the 370,000 unemployed veterans nationwide in 2017, 59 percent were ages 25 to 54; 37 percent were ages 55 and older; and 4 percent were ages 18 to 24.
New, existing efforts
Community employment coordinator Anthony Fairbanks started at the VA a few months ago and plans to closely connect with businesses in Sheridan to help better assimilate veterans into the civilian world.
Fairbanks said Sheridan is a veteran-friendly community.
“I have yet to meet an employer that says, ‘I’m not hiring any more veterans, I’ve had too many problems with them,’” Fairbanks said. “Luckily most of the employers in town see the benefits of hiring veterans.”
Wyoming Department of Workforce Services specialist Melana Cummings said the Sheridan office has a specialist who works exclusively with veterans on finding employment. The office also gives priority of incoming employment opportunities to veterans per a U.S. Department of Labor Jobs for Veterans Act.
“They still have to be qualified for the job, but when we go into our system and receive the jobs we will notify veterans first and then nonveterans,” Cummings said.
Cummings also said businesses often have employers ask to list their job posting with a veteran-first priority tag.
“We want people to want veterans,” Cummings said.
Volunteers of America Northern Rockies Freedom Hall and Sheridan College veteran services employees also work daily with veterans in assimilating them back into the community and helping them connect with agencies in the area, but neither program could list businesses that are known for specifically hiring veterans.
VOANR’s Debby Lynch, who directs Supportive Services for Veteran Families, does work with the VA, Workforce Development Program, local job centers and connects veterans with job fairs throughout the state to help them reach their employment goals.
Combat to civilization
Panel participants at the mental health summit shared differing perspectives on the difficulty or ease of transitioning from the military back into civilian life, but most said a large part of assimilating is obtaining a job.
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1560 Commander Scott Height still struggles with his abrupt entry back into civilian living. In the course of 72 hours, Height had transitioned from crossing the ocean on a Navy ship to mowing his parent’s lawn in Washington.
Height found his strong work ethic as a trait that intimidated his coworkers instead of empowering them like he experienced in the military. His high speeds and safety conscious efforts went from what he thought was going to be motivation to dislike.
“It turned into where I came off as arrogant,” Height said. “In the military, they respect you and they listen to you because they understand the stripes on your sleeve, they understand the combat ribbons on your chest. You had that instantaneous respect.”
Dr. Kevin Woodrow, another panel member and veteran, recognized the demotion of status in moving from an officer in the military to a graduate student. His age, vocational focus and financial stability helped him with the transition out of the military.
“I was able to really plan out my transition a lot better than I would have if I was a young 21-year-old that just did three years in the Army and didn’t really know what they wanted to do,” Woodrow said.
He and his family also lived off base, alleviating another common adjustment many veterans face after serving.
All can hire
Although Height appreciates working with his hands, and panel member and veteran Michael Putnam said veterans like working in the outdoors and often dangerous jobs, not every veteran coming out of the military fits the blue collar-only stereotype. Fairbanks assumed the blue-collar ideal and has since recognized the need for partnering with all types of businesses in the community.
“After doing it for a while, I was completely wrong in that,” Fairbanks said. “There is the gamut. Our veterans want to be nurses; our veterans want to work in banks. I pigeon-holed and had a stereotype for veterans and come to find out they’re just like everybody else.”
While Sheridan boasts a veteran-friendly community, there is still work to be done in connecting veterans fresh out of active duty with employment opportunities in the civilian community.