Local nonprofit provides example for Veterans Affairs Commission

By Anna Daugherty

 

Austin’s newest commission, one year old, is considering establishing a “one-stop shop” for veterans, and is looking to a non-profit organization in Cedar Park as an example.

At the Commission on Veterans Affairs meeting Tuesday afternoon, the commissioners spoke about a one-stop shop that would serve as an all-inclusive resource center online, bringing together the many veteran benefits programs to make the application process smoother.

Commissioner Linda Yoder proposed petitioning the city council to create an online and written resource for veterans to find information about available support. She said this resource would bring help ensure that veterans can find what they need.

Chairwoman Cassaundra St. John opposed, saying the commission was not yet ready to move forward with the proposal, because similar resources were already available through the state and county. St. John said if the city did not add something new, the council would reject it.

Commissioner Phillip Gutierres supported Yoder.

“The city is derelict if it’s no doing anything, if we do nothing but piggyback, that’s not progressive for Austin,” Gutierres said.

Yoder said she thinks the commission will be able to find a lot of holes to fill in information.

“You can find information in general but there is no specific information about the greater Austin area,” Yoder said. “That’s where it becomes more and more difficult. I think we should see what we can come up with.”

The commission decided to suspend the idea pending more research.

Allen Bergeron, veterans consultant for the commission, said there are several non-profit organizations that are already helping veterans find the support they need.

Christopher Araujo, Military Veteran Peer Network (MVPN) coordinator, is trying to offer a one-stop resource through the Heroes Night Out center in Cedar Park, Texas.

Araujo said the center offers peer-to-peer interaction and counseling, peer group mentoring, monthly dinners and weekly breakfasts. Araujo also maintains relationships with many levels of veteran resources, including county veteran service officers, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the city and state veteran centers. He sorts through the resources to help make the process streamlined for veterans.

Yoder said MVPN sounded similar to the one-stop shop commissioners were looking for, and expressed interest in partnering with MVPN when the city is ready to build its own.

“It’s a great facility,” Yoder said. “I’ve been out there. I would encourage everyone to go look at Heroes Night Out when we’re considering our one-stop shop.”

Araujo said he tries to work with all veterans, even those with a dishonorable discharge, or incarcerated veterans.

“We don’t discriminate,” Araujo said. “That’s how we’re different – we work with everybody.”

Araujo said one of the biggest challenges that veterans face is the stigma about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He said veterans who might be ready to get help for their PTSD might be hesitant because they don’t want to be stigmatized.

“A big example is the Fort Hood shooting,” Araujo said. “Everyone was quick to label it PTSD. I work with a lot of people with PTSD and they’re well-functioning people. We shouldn’t label it so quickly.”

Araujo said he hopes not only to support veterans; but to influence the community’s mindset toward them.

The Commission on Veterans Affairs is the newest commission in the city. It was started at the beginning of 2013. Bergeron said some people were enthusiastic about the commission while others opposed it.

“Some people think that veterans don’t rank for any special treatment over anyone else,” Bergeron said. “And then there’s others who believe that without veterans, we wouldn’t be here.”

With more than 60,000 veterans living in Travis County, and another 38,000 living in Williamson, the commission is under pressure to represent them well in its first year.

Bergeron said he expects progress to take time and move slowly at first.

“You can’t build something huge in the first year,” Bergeron said. “The first year has had a lot of growing pains, figuring out our priorities. You have to start somewhere. They (the commissioners) planted a lot of seeds.”