Special Report: Mass. Takes on Mission Helping Vets Find Work

By Andrea Aldana

Since 2001, over 37,000 Massachusetts residents have served in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Now, with the official end of Iraq War, the Patrick administration wants to help returning troops find jobs.

It won’t be an easy. While the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 10 percent in March, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that unemployment for those who served after September 2001 had a rate of 11.5 percent. Veterans between ages 18 to 24 face an unemployment rate of 21.5 percent.

Those who work with veterans say finding a job is their first mission when they return home.

“The biggest [concern] they mention is obviously the segue into employment,” said Roxanne Whitbeck Plymouth’s Veterans’ Service officer.

The importance of jobs is illustrated by other numbers. Veterans represent 11 percent of the adult U.S. civilian population, but 26 percent of the homeless population, according to the Homeless Research Institute.

The Patrick Administration announced a new series of initiatives in November to support the hiring of veterans, including a task force to promote the benefits of hiring veterans and increased partnerships with potential employers through the Massachusetts Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives.

Employers can also advertise their support with a “Proud Employer of Massachusetts Veterans” plaque if they employ a veterans.

The state also has 34 one-stop free career centers with veterans’ employment representatives whose assist in job search and resume writing.

Vincent Perrone, a retired Air Force officer who is president of Veterans Inc. , said  such lessons are critical.

“When I left the military, they had a voluntary transitional assistance program, which these days are pretty much mandatory,” said Perrone, whose Worcester-based company provides aid to veterans . “I learned how to rewrite my resume. I hadn’t gone out on a job interview in 20 years.”

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said the state is working to get the message across that veterans tend to be goal and career-oriented, as well as inform employers of tax credits they receive.

“We’re doing better on education and outreach but we can certainly do better,” he said.

The governor also created a subcommittees on veteran services for student veterans and re-employment within his advisory council .

“Fundamentally, we have an obligation. That’s something the governor and I feel strongly about,” said Murray, who chairs the Governor’s Advisory Council on Veteran’s Services, which Patrick established in April 2007.

Murray said the council grew out of meetings he and Patrick had with veterans during the 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

“In Westfield, one of the veterans talked about how it [the council] existed in the past, and it was a good opportunity to bring different veteran organizations and veterans from different wars and conflicts to talk about issues veterans were having,” Murray said.

The council works with the Department of Veteran Services, reviewing state and federal laws and programs relating to veterans.
“It’s been a great vehicle to make sure we are meeting the needs of veterans that have served in past wars and conflicts and making sure we’re prepared for the wave of coming home,” Murray said.
John Yazwinski, president and CEO of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a non-profit organization that provides emergency shelter and workforce training for homeless veterans, works closely with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as well as the Massachusetts. Department of Veteran Services.

“We have a contract with the VA to shelter veteran families and individuals, and we have a contract with the DVS where we provide homeless veterans with workforce opportunities,” he said.

The organization, which has offices in Quincy and Brockton, assisted 200 local homeless veterans in 2010. Some 90 participated in the workforce program, according to Yazwinski. Fifty veterans found permanent employment.
The new initiatives continue the state’s leadership in veteran’s affairs. Massachusetts is the only state to offer vets financial assistance, including food, clothing and housing supplies, according to a report issued by Murray’s office.

Other benefits unique to the state include $2,000 annual payments to disabled veterans, Gold Star parents, who have lost their son or daughter during service, and Gold Star spouses, if not remarried.

Massachusetts gives $1,000 to soldiers who return from active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan as a Welcome Home Bonus. An additional $500 is given for additional tours in the war zones.

Massachusetts has also led in reducing homelessness among veterans. In 2011, there were 1,268 homeless veterans in Massachusetts, down 18 percent from the previous year. The homeless rate declined 19 percent from 2000 to 2011, compared to 12 percent in the nation, according to Paulette Song, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Future plans include a $2.86 million budget proposal for fiscal year 2013, providing $700,000 for Veterans Quit Smoking Patch Initiative and extending property tax exemptions to Gold Star widows until they remarry.

“Massachusetts is second to none in the U.S. to resources for our veterans,” Yazwinski said. “We feel very confident because of the commitment we see from the VA and the Patrick-Murray administration.”

Father Bill’s & MainSpring works closely with local veterans’ service officers, providing information about services and referring those who may be at risk for homelessness.

State law requires each city and town to have a veterans’ service officer.

“They really are the point people,” said Murray. “[Secretary of Veterans Services] Coleman Nee works with them on a daily basis and they have a strong partnership statewide.”

Murray said there was a strong collaboration between the VA and veteran service officers and state government.

“We are very aggressive in acquiring federal grants and will continue to be aggressive,” he said. “It’s really been a concern of this administration to secure federal funding.”

In 2010, the state secured two homeless veterans’ reintegration program grants and one workforce investment program grant from the federal government.

Yazwinksi said he hoped the federal and state government would continue such efforts as a new wave of troops come home.
“They’ve done so many tours. They’re coming back with PTSD that we as a country need to help with,” he said.

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