By Chris Meek
Most Americans understand the potential benefits of pursuing higher education. These can include everything from earning a larger salary, to a higher potential for employment. Those with higher education often have a tendency for deeper involvement in civic activities and better overall health, in part, due to financial security.
The list goes on and on and has been imprinted in our minds by politicians, primary education instructors, and the like as the next logical step for high school graduates.
With it, higher education brings some appealing opportunities for young adults. Though higher education may not be for everyone, it certainly provides its own set of additional opportunities for veterans as they return home from service and begin to transition – and ultimately adjust – to civilian life.
It’s not just veterans that benefit from the institutions in which they enroll. Veterans serve as assets to the schools they attend, bringing with them unparalleled experiences and unique leadership characteristics from their time in service. Negative myths have been perpetuated casting veterans as underwhelming academic performers in comparison to their civilian peers.
It is no surprise that an abundance of research indicates what many members of the military have figured all along: veterans excel in higher education classrooms. In fact, they thrive in making the transition from the role of the active duty service member to student, to college graduate. In fact, I would argue that pursuing an education can play a large role in a comfortable transition back into the civilian world.
The success and track record of student veterans underlines the need and importance of the $5 billion dollars in education benefits attributed to student veterans annually through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ G.I. Bill. Particularly in 2020, a year made tumultuous by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which has affected our country’s higher education students in general, let alone the additional effects it has had on our student veterans.
In response to the extra difficulties placed on student veterans at this time, Congress extended a number of financial protections earlier this month. These ensure the extension of work-study programs and leave housing stipends unchanged. These are important steps in helping student veterans navigate these trying times.
The G.I. bill, which has benefitted nearly one million veterans in the past year. However, even with these extensions, the bill has historically not always relieved all of the costs associated with obtaining a degree.
Textbooks, classroom fees, transportation, technology, tutoring, and a number of other additional expenses come with higher education and are often not considered upfront when developing a general financial plan. This is only made more difficult for the many veterans who also work full or part-time to support their families and other financial obligations that are not typical of the average college student.
In response to these often difficult realities, multiple scholarship programs (on both the local and national levels) have formed to reduce the financial burdens that come with obtaining an education. These scholarships make the transition into higher education easier for veterans.
SoldierStrong, the nonprofit that I co-founded and serve as executive director for, is one such organization that provides scholarships through our SoldierScholar initiative.
We assist veterans in taking an academic step into their future by filling in gaps left by the G.I. bill. so that veterans can finish their college education in order to continue public service careers upon the conclusion of their military service. We are proud of the over $500,000 in scholarships we have been able to provide. These scholarships have provided benefits to student veterans at Georgetown University, Old Dominion University, and Syracuse University.
We look forward to awarding more SoldierScholar scholarships this year to benefit veterans as they complete their academic journey.
U.S. Army veteran Edrena Roberts, a 2019 SoldierScholar recipient at Georgetown University, said that receiving a SoldierScholar scholarship has given her “incredible peace of mind” and that it has helped make her “success a reality.”
Roberts is currently receiving her Master of Professional Studies in Applied Intelligence and hopes to use her degree to someday work for the FBI as an analyst. It’s veterans like Roberts that prove why it is so important that organizations continue to provide access to higher education. These opportunities allow veterans to apply the leadership and problem-solving skills they developed in the military to their future careers, thus finding new ways to serve their communities and country.
By Chris Meek
As the stigma surrounding mental health has continued to lessen in recent years, more of an emphasis has been placed on suicide prevention and as a result a number of programs have emerged to varying degrees of success. But the fact remains that even with a wider array of prevention programs coupled with the allocation of $222 million by Congress to the VA to prevent suicide in the past decade, there are still 20 veteran suicides each day.
In my opinion, no program has been as far-reaching or all-encompassing as the recent President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) task force in the effort to prevent suicide, of which I serve as an advisor for alongside a number of esteemed peers. The PREVENTS task force worked together to establish a definitive roadmap which specifically outlines a multitude of unambiguous steps that all Americans can take to prevent suicide. Suicide is a national public health problem that in turn requires a national approach to combatting.
The recommendations put forth by the PREVENTS task force cover a variety of topics and a lot of ground but in particular, I want to focus on what an approach looks like from the local level so that everyday Americans understand how they can participate and contribute to the prevention of suicide.
There are a number of states that have suicide prevention councils but a similar structure can be used to create councils that are specific to your community and the needs of your community’s citizens and veterans. Towns and cities across the country have put such councils in place composed of veterans, health care professionals, and faith and political leaders. This is a great resource to train the broader community about suicide and mental health, as well as coordinate outreach events, awareness campaigns and develop partnerships with local businesses and residents.
Having suicide prevention councils and other community specific organizations in place serve as sources for veterans to build a connection with their community which is paramount to maintaining good mental health. According to research conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, if individuals feel comfortable with their surroundings and feel a sense of belonging they are more likely to place a greater emphasis on maintaining overall health.
Suicide prevention councils can coordinate with local businesses and area employers about best practices for all employees, but particularly veterans, when it comes to preventing suicide. It is so much more than posting a suicide prevention poster in a shop window or making sure that employees have access to a suicide prevention hotline should they need it. Employers should be educated on the signs and symptoms of suicide and – this is the part that is often overlooked – educate their employees on these signs and symptoms as well. This has never before been more important than now as we wade through the current pandemic and many individuals are stressed about keeping their job, sending their children back to school and staying healthy so that they can continue to provide for their families.
I would also note that it is not only important for employers and companies to provide access to mental health care if they are able, but that it can be beneficial to also provide information about emergency services, religious leaders, veteran organizations, AA and substance abuse meetings and the nearest VA’s suicide prevention coordinator, to make a difference for employees who feel that they need access to additional services outside of traditional health care.
And, though the following strategy may not affect existing veterans, I do believe that more comprehensive mental health education can be introduced to children at a young age – either at home or especially in the classroom – as an added step to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and provide the next generation with the tools they need to manage their experiences and emotions. We can better prepare our children to monitor and pay attention to their mental health in a way that some of us were never taught at a young age. Local teachers, religious leaders, coaches and obviously parents can lead the way by taking simple steps, such as asking if a child is okay, truly meaning it and expecting an honest response back. Sometimes it is the little things that make the biggest difference.
I believe that the actions and steps we take on the local level are paramount to preventing suicide and I encourage anyone who is interested to learn more about initiatives and steps in your city or state. Additionally, the PREVENTS national public health campaign, REACH, is based on the idea that combatting veteran suicide is not just something that we all must do, but something we all must do together, by reaching out to one another and letting the people we care about know that they are not alone. I want to encourage everyone to head to https://www.wearewithinreach.net/pledge/ to learn more about REACH and take the PREVENTS pledge to reach today.
By Chris Meek
Last year the Department of Veterans Affairs released a report that found that 32% of veterans work in public service or charitable organizations. This is higher compared to their non-veteran counterparts, of which 22% work in those particular fields. Some may ask what makes veterans more likely to work in these types of organizations, but the fact that they do should come as no real surprise. It makes sense that those who choose to serve their country would find new ways to serve their communities in life after service.
There are a number of reasons why many veterans choose to serve their own communities. Many of those reasons are deeply personal. But I think there are also several positive key elements that draw a great number of veterans to volunteer or work in public service or charity and non-profit organizations. My hope is that in bringing light to some of these positive elements, other veterans, and quite frankly civilians as well, will be inspired to serve in similar outlets.
I have made it a mission of mine to assist veterans in taking their next steps into life after service through SoldierStrong, the nonprofit that I co-founded and currently serve as chairman of. As many veterans have experienced, it can often be difficult to transition from the military into everyday civilian life. However, volunteering, taking leadership roles within the community and serving the public can serve as an essential part of making that transition easier. It can be a good first step forward for many veterans, especially for those who are looking to give their life renewed meaning and purpose.
These types of roles also allow veterans to utilize many of the leadership and management skills that they developed during their time in the military, as well as use them in outlets that are extremely beneficial to their communities. As many know, military capabilities are certainly applicable to other aspects of life and choosing to follow a path that allows you to harness skills learned during your time in the service can make you feel that your work in the civilian world is worthwhile and constructive.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the overwhelmingly positive impacts that this type of work ultimately can have on one’s mental health. Work in the public service and non-profit spectrums can serve as a great launching pad for lessening depression and anxiety, as well as providing a deeper sense of identity.
Even if working directly in these fields is not feasible for you, there are still great ways to give back to your community. Throughout the past few months as our country has waded through unprecedented and stressful times, there has been a greater shift to focus on mental health and to find what it is that makes us all happy as a way to de-stress and gain a better sense of control over our well-being. I encourage everyone to take what it is that they love and turn it into a way to give back to your community. For example, if you love to bike then organize a community bike ride to raise money for a local charity. Or if you like to knit, consider knitting hats for premature babies at your local hospital. There are many unique ways to take what you love and find a way to turn it into something that allows you to show your love for your community and its members.
Though there are a vast number of additional positive aspects of veterans working in public service and non-profit fields that I admittedly did not have enough space to cover above, I encourage those who are interested to continue their own research and hopefully take those initial next steps to serve your communities. I am entirely convinced that the number of veterans working in public service and charity outlets will only continue to rise in the years to come. Thank you to those for your service and your continued service as well.
SoldierStrong, a national nonprofit committed to using revolutionary medical technology to help military veterans take their next steps forward, and the University of Southern California, were recognized as a top-eight finalist at the annual Igniting Innovation Conference and Awards for their partnership in developing and distributing virtual reality systems to treat military veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress (PTS).
The American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) also presented SoldierStrong and USC with the “Game Changer” award, which recognizes innovations that “provide breakthrough solutions and new ways to navigate longstanding problems. The Igniting Innovation Conference and Awards, presented by the ACT-IAC, shines a light on the country’s top innovators and innovations that advance the lives of Americans and the government entities which serve them.
“It is a tremendous honor to be recognized as a finalist at the Igniting Innovation Conference and Awards by industry experts who truly understand and value disruptive technology,” said Chris Meek, co-founder and chairman of SoldierStrong. “We believe it’s a great achievement to be a finalist and receive the “Game Changer” award, especially considering the depth and quality of the other finalists and, in fact, the entire field of nominees.”
The StrongMind program leverages the USC Institute for Creative Technologies’ Virtual Realities system BRAVEMIND to deliver prolonged exposure therapy – the practice of recalling a troubling memory while talking through the nuances of that memory with a licensed therapist. This evidence-based and effective method for treating PTS allows therapists to recreate the scene of the veteran’s troubling memory in a virtual reality headset and thus, places the veteran squarely back within the midst of that memory at a pace they can handle. StrongMind’s technology creates 14 specific “worlds,” or combat scenarios, and allows trained therapists to select a given world based on a veteran’s traumatic experience and customize it based on their unique needs.
“It’s very gratifying to have peers in our discipline and in other scientific fields recognize the significance of this innovative, life-changing technology and the services that the USC-SoldierStrong relationship is providing to our country’s veterans,” said Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “We are humbled by this recognition and thank the ACT-IAC for its efforts to bring attention to this novel approach for treating combat-related PTS. This approach is now being expanded to address the needs of those who have suffered trauma due to sexual assault, first responder occupational hazards, and the stress that is now being experienced by healthcare professionals on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. The SoldierStrong partnership has created opportunities that stand to better the lives of all Americans who have suffered from the experience of trauma.”
To date, SoldierStrong has donated 14 virtual reality hardware and software systems to VA Health Care medical facilities, with the long-term goal of providing access to the StrongMind technology to veterans at every VA facility in the United States.
SoldierStrong and USC, in collaboration with the VHA Innovation Ecosystem, an organization which promotes innovations in the healthcare industry which directly benefit veterans, were among 150 nominees for this year’s Igniting Innovation Awards. Submissions focused on a wide variety of fields, including IT modernization, data analytics, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and robotic process automation. In June, the ACT-IAC announced 40 semi-finalists whose innovations address pertinent issues in fields such as healthcare, defense, public safety, aviation, and finance. From that group, the top eight were recognized at an event hosted by the ACT-IAC, where each of the organizations were able to present their innovations to the public sector and top finalists and an overall award winner were selected by attendees.
Vice President Mike Pence recognized SoldierStrong during his speech for the work that we are doing to provide revolutionary medical technologies to veterans. We are grateful that this year’s convention recognized the service and honored the presence of our country’s heroes. Thank you to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, First Lady Melania Trump and Second Lady Karen Pence for your generosity.