Hoping to reach veterans in that crucial first year after they leave military service, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has initiated a new program called Solid Start.
“That first year of separation is most stressful,’’ explained Margarita Devlin, principal deputy under secretary for benefits in Washington, D.C. “Their entire living situation is changing. Their sense of mission and camaraderie with other service members is no longer present. It’s a lot to deal with.’’
The VA is taking a proactive approach with Solid Start, which uses a nationwide team of 125 specially trained personnel to reach out by phone to over 200,000 veterans who are making the transition from military to civilian life.
Solid Start team members make new veterans aware of benefits, such as health care and mental health care, home loans and help returning to the civilian workforce. They can provide links to benefits that fit each veteran’s needs. And they will contact each veteran three times in that first year.
“This is a group of VA representatives specially trained for proactive contact with new veterans,’’ Devlin explained. “A team member will contact new veterans at up to 90 days, at six months and at a year to make sure they are accessing the benefits they need.’’
Devlin said that before they leave the military, service members go through a week of training that explains transition and benefits to which they are entitled. But, she noted, once in civilian they may not remember all those benefits or their situations may have changed.
An example is someone who didn’t apply for disability compensation but now realizes it’s needed. Or a female veteran who is interested in healthcare for women, or a veteran who wants to buy a house.
“We will reach out to them and walk them through how to apply for benefits they didn’t know they have,’’ said Devlin.
That includes reaching veterans who may need help with mental health issues. The VA is concerned about preventing suicide, a national problem.
So if a veteran is struggling with returning to civilian life, Solid Start can offer help. If a veteran is in crisis, he or she can be connected to a hotline and get immediate care.
A brand new program, Solid Start was launched Dec. 2. Team members work with contact data they receive from the U.S. Department of Defense. If veterans do not have phone numbers listed, Solid Start conducts research to see if they are in the VA data base.
But if new veterans haven’t heard from the Solid Start team at 90 days, they can call the Veterans Benefits Administration at 1-800-827-1000 and ask for the Solid Start program.
Solid Start alerts new veterans when they will receive these phone calls.
“We send them an email to let them know we’ll be calling and after the call, we’ll send a follow up email and that these are the things we talked about with links to the services they need,’’ said Devlin.
The VA is pleased with response from veterans to Solid Start.
“We weren’t sure how many veterans would answer the phone,’’ said Devlin. “We thought if 15% answered it would be successful but over 50% of veterans are answering the phone and engaging with us.’’
And veterans are responding favorably.
Devlin noted, “Many veterans have made comments that it’s really great or they didn’t realize the VA benefits were available to them because there’s so much they were trying to absorb while going through transition.’’