Fred Trapassi, Jr., Vice President of Rhode Island Services for Phoenix House, explains that one of biggest challenges for the staff working with veterans has been the clients’ feeling that they are unable to talk about their military experiences with people outside of the military. Because of this, the staff members are now involved in specialized training to learn skills to help the veterans overcome those hurdles while in individual and group settings. He says another challenge lies in the fact that many active military personnel do not allow their families, friends, or the military to get involved in their treatment because they do not want it known that they are receiving help.
To keep people engaged in treatment when they’re feeling pressures to go back and be home with their families is always a struggle, according to Amy Singer, Senior Vice President/Director, Public Private Partnerships and Business Development. It’s difficult but important to try and help people find that balance between taking care of their own personal needs and also dealing with family responsibilities.
“A lot of the veterans have great pride and reluctance to admit that they need help. Part of the whole military culture requires that you be tough and requires that you keep some of your personal challenges to yourself so I think it’s particularly hard to come out of that culture to ask for help,” Singer says.
Phoenix House also assists veterans with employment. “We go out of our way to hire veterans because we believe strongly that this is a population that should be supported and needs our support,” explains Trapassi.
“When you have a position open, just be aware of what applicants are veterans and what they can add to you as a provider, because they really can add a lot of value to the services we provide, particularly with that population,” he urges.
Singer says that at the organization’s New York City location, there are two women who are both Iraq war veterans. Former veterans also serve as outreach liaisons at Phoenix House, which Singer says has proved extremely helpful. “Because of stigma and all the reluctance somebody might have when they come into a treatment program, you magnify that when you add on someone being a veteran where they’re concerned that if they come into treatment, it’s going to reflect on their employment. Having people that are veterans themselves do that outreach was very helpful for us,” she explains.
Besides employing the veterans at Phoenix House, many times staff assistance is needed in finding these people positions in which they feel they are valued. Some military members, especially those with responsible leadership positions while in combat, come back to a world of finance, sales, and IT positions, and do not understand how to translate their experience and leadership capabilities into this economy, according to Singer. She says these men often end up taking a position that is far beneath their skill-level and feel as if they are letting themselves and their families down.
Singer explains that Phoenix House has some vocational training available for individuals if they’re interested, and if it’s appropriate, the organization may refer somebody to another agency if it thinks it could be well-equipped to help someone in a special area.
She recalls an example of a veteran who went through treatment at Phoenix House and was interested in a career in technology. He was given an internship within the organization’s IT department so he could gain some work experience before he looked for permanent job.
She says they also have an AmeriCorps program and help individuals who want to become an addiction counselor to get the credentials they need.
Unlike the VA, which won’t serve someone that’s less than honorably discharged, Phoenix House will accept those individuals into treatment and has been finding that frequently staff members can help them appeal their discharge disposition and get that changed so that they then are eligible for services from the VA.
“Many of the individuals we serve actually started to use prescription drugs while they were serving and then that got out of hand and it might ultimately have led to a less than honorable discharge, so we help them with that process of trying to get their benefits restored,” Singer explains.
She says the organization also spends much time working with partner agencies trying to help people get into specialty veterans housing when appropriate. “We have been able to get a number of our clients into that housing so that the continuum of care can be extended and they can live in a supportive environment while in their own independent living situation,” says Singer.
Words of wisdom
Singer notes that it’s crucial to be patient because programs such as this take a long time to develop. She believes in really listening to the needs of clients and giving them a legitimate voice in program planning.
She also finds it important to spend a lot of time on relationship building with the local VA – because she says no two VA operations are the same— and other veterans service providers. In order to access as many resources as possible for veterans, working with others collaboratively in the community is a must as well, as “no one agency can do it alone.”
For Trapassi, “It’s about being able to give back. They just give so much in terms of their time and their time away from home and their families. First and foremost, it’s a way to give back and show them that we appreciate their service.”