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North Hills Monthly

Rethink Veterans Hopes to Bridge Military-Citizen Divide

Oct 31, 2017 05:17PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Community Leadership Course for Veterans volunteers move a log into place at the nature play area at the Frick Environmental Center. Photo credit: Taiji Nelson

Veterans returning to civilian life have much to offer, yet a successful transition has many components that they must navigate. Thoughtful resources and breaking down social misconceptions can help minimize the potential for a rocky reintegration into the nonmilitary world. We spoke with Megan Andros, program officer, Community and Economic Development at The Heinz Endowments—and a veteran herself—about Rethink Veterans, an initiative that aims to bridge gaps between veterans and society.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the Heinz Endowments, and what is their mission?

Megan Andros (Andros): We’re a regional foundation, and we strive to use the region as a laboratory for problems that are national in scope. We want the region to be a culturally vibrant area, healthy environmentally, and have healthy neighborhoods. We want to make sure families are thriving where they live.

NHM: And how is Rethink Veterans connected to Heinz Endowments?

Andros: I was hired back in 2013, and it was about that time that our board was starting to ask questions about our response to reintegrating service members. I don’t know if anyone at the city level outside of the VA (Veterans Administration) looked at the data to get a sense of what it looked like to reintegrate service members. The Heinz Endowments hired me to dive deep into the issues, including helping veterans find the right footing as they come back to the region, finding jobs and building networks. We have five pretty clear focus areas within our veterans’ work; one of the five is to support the advance of veterans in the region—the Rethink Veterans campaign was born out of that strategy area.  

NHM: Why was there a need for Rethink Veterans?

Andros: We believe that vets and military families are talented people that we as a city can leverage to the benefit of our region. Rethink Veterans is a communications strategy, an attempt to close the civilian and military divide. We’re 17 years into Iraq/Afghanistan, and we still don’t feel like we’re addressing what we need to address, and we see the military and civilian gap getting bigger.

Less than one half of one percent of people has served in the military, and even fewer know someone who has been affected by these deployments. We want to get people’s attention. They probably walk by 20 veterans on their way to work every day. Veterans are fully functioning, capable, intelligent people, but not everyone knows a veteran, and often people have preconceived notions about why veterans joined the military. So part of the campaign was to address cultural stereotypes about veterans.

NHM: What are some of those misperceptions?

Andros: Veterans returning to civilian life are on average highly educated, disciplined and more experienced than many of their civilian counterparts, yet public perception often doesn’t reflect this. I think it’s a stereotype that people had no other choice, or that they were escaping something, but in reality, the military has a higher percentage of high school graduates. Also, people in the military are healthier, a little more driven or they wouldn’t have signed themselves up for this kind of lifestyle, but that is not what people know.

NHM: About how many veterans live in our area?

Andros: There are 235,000 veterans, and that includes from World War II on. Allegheny County alone has 100,000 veterans. We think that roughly 50,000 veterans have returned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to our region. At the national level, Allegheny County has the 22nd largest veterans’ population of any county in the country, and Pennsylvania has the fourth highest population of any state.

NHM: When veterans retire from active service, what are some of the challenges they face reintegrating back into civilian life?

Andros: Four years ago before the endowment started, I would say that the biggest issue was finding resources. At that time, there were 180 nonprofits just in Allegheny County exclusively servicing veterans, but the reality is you can’t Google your way to the best resources. We recognized really quickly that we needed to restructure the system to get them through to the right resource the first time.

NHM: How do you go about consolidating those resources?

Andros: Through PA Serves; that is one of our investments, and our grantee is Syracuse University. They are essentially a concierge service—they take into account discharge status, income level, etc. All of that is criterion the organization uses to decide if they can serve you or not. They help with housing, finding a job, legal issues, emergency assistance and more. We have service members getting out of service, calling and working with PA Serves before they even get to Pittsburgh. To date, they have served 2,284 individuals.

NHM: What are some issues that veterans face from an occupational standpoint upon return?

Andros: Underemployment is the real issue. Leaving the military and going into the civilian sector is terrifying for people coming out of the service. For me, I was a captain with five years of service in Iraq. I was a West Point graduate, I led people in combat, and in coming to Pittsburgh, I didn’t know the first thing about finding a job. Veterans don’t know how to talk about their experience in a way that employers understand. A transportation office in the military might get pigeonholed into being a truck driver, not accounting for their management ability or responsibility over equipment. There is no easy solution to this, which is one of the reasons that we did the campaign.

NHM: What are some ways that the public can get involved?

Andros: Veterans are more likely to volunteer than their civilian counterparts. We have hundreds of veterans in Pittsburgh who have signed up to serve our community in unique ways, so volunteer with them; it’s a great way to learn about them. I think the young veterans’ community would love to see the community at large value them and their contributions. Make them a part of your network; that's how we start to change the problem of the military-civilian divide.