Op-Ed: Volunteer state of mind, making veterans feel at home

Op-Ed by Jennifer Vedral-Baron, Director, VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System

Challenging. Humbling. Rewarding. These are just a few of the words that could be used to describe military service. Dynamic is another word I could use to describe mine. My family and I moved 15 times during my 30-year career in the U.S. Navy.

We’d lived in Jacksonville, Florida and Washington, D.C. for extended periods of time, so a likely assumption was that we would settle in one of those places when I retired from active duty. But having been all around the nation and world, I knew there were places I’d rather be, and at the top of that list was Tennessee.

Each time I had visited the state, I got a feeling that I belonged here. The people, the climate, the terrain—all of it wrapped me up in a sense of welcome, a sense of being home. So after I retired from the Navy and was hired by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), my family and I, like many other veterans, made Tennessee our home.

Though Tennessee lawmakers only officially adopted the nickname in February 2020, it’s been known as The Volunteer State for years. This dates back to either the War of 1812, referring to the role volunteer soldiers from Tennessee played, or to the Mexican–American War in the 1840s, when President Polk’s call for 2,600 volunteers nationwide resulted in 30,000 from Tennessee alone. Either way, the point is Tennessee is patriotic, and that shows in its support for veterans throughout the state. I believe this serves as a wonderful model for other states to follow.

Jennifer Vedral-Baron, director, Department of Veteran’s Affairs Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.

Of course, as its director, I’ll suggest our team at the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System is the proudest and most supportive of veterans of any team in the state. My colleagues at VA medical centers in Memphis and Mountain Home will argue with that, trust me. I’ll concede only this: We all share a deep passion for providing the highest quality of care to our nation’s heroes.

Care Includes Helping Veterans Find Meaningful Work

VA offers more than health care, though. Our Compensated Work Therapy teams provide evidence-based and evidence-informed vocational rehabilitation services through partnerships with business, industry, and government agencies.

We find veterans meaningful work, even, and especially if, they are suffering from post-traumatic stress or other issues that might make finding work tough. Through these programs, we helped 5,025 Tennessee veterans with their work-related issues in 2019.

Then again, when it comes to who is most supportive of veterans in the state, VA definitely has competition (and that’s a good thing!). The Tennessee Department of Veteran Services works to ensure veterans get the benefits they have earned and have access to resources designed specifically for them.

TDVS connects veterans seeking employment to state career centers to get them started, and provides links on their website listing job openings posted by employers across the state, as well as to the state government jobs website for those seeking state government jobs. As a proactive outreach measure, TDVS is also piloting an initiative to keep employers informed of benefits available to the veterans they employ.

Another example of the way Tennessee takes care of veterans is at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, where the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center provides transition services for veterans and their families. The 3,200-square foot center is situated in the heart of the MTSU campus and serves as a one-stop shop to meet a variety of academic needs for more than 1,000 military-connected students and their families.

It’s a place where veteran students can gather, study, and get help from fellow Veterans serving as peer advisors and sponsors. We even placed a VA social worker there full-time. The Daniels Center team provides support in every aspect of the academic experience in addition to helping veterans find work in the area.

And when it comes to veteran-friendly corporate employers, Tennessee has plenty to boast about. There are several big-name corporations operating out of Tennessee, and some have amazing veteran recruiting and placement programs. These companies understand that by and large, veterans are leaders who are trained to develop others and deliver results. Their leaders are invested in figuring out how veterans best fit into their corporate environment and helping them transition. This is a practice I strongly believe other corporate employers should emulate.

Pride is a word often associated with military service, and for good reason. Like every veteran I know, I’m proud of my service. That’s because I’m proud of my nation, and similarly, I’m proud of my home state.

Tennessee is a place where veterans can take advantage of opportunities and benefits offered by the federal government, the state government, and corporate America—benefits extended in appreciation of their sacrifice.

It’s a place where veterans can feel welcome and at home.

Jennifer Vedral-Baron is the director of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.  

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