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Vets Helping Vets: Group assists veterans with array of services

Times & Democrat - 1/19/2020

Jan. 19--A local veterans group is seeking to meet the physical, social and economic needs of veterans with an array of services as it works to extend its community outreach arm.

Vets Helping Vets was established in Orangeburg in June 2018.

The 32-member group meets from 9 to 11:30 a.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at the Orangeburg Area Boys and Girls Club's Thomas B. Eklund Center at 1313 Cannon Bridge Road in Orangeburg.

Dr. Robert Johnson, who serves on the six-member advisory board, said the goal of the group is to assist veterans from every branch of the military in a holistic manner, including but not limited to helping them file for health and other benefits which they are entitled to.

"A lot of them don't know how to go about filing the claims and the follow up that is needed. There are many veterans that are not receiving health benefits because they have just not applied and gone through the process. The benefits I'm talking about are health benefits and compensation and pensions," Johnson said.

"We have an advisory board that helps plan and organize all of our activities, whether that be outreach, guest speakers, setting up for special occasions and developing goals and objectives throughout the year for the group," he said.

Johnson said the group meets with the intent to foster togetherness and a willingness to help other veterans.

"We're talking about homeless veterans from one end of the spectrum to the other. We're talking about veterans that are suffering from PTSD. We're talking about vets that just had some traumatic experiences that are in need of health care.

"A lot of our vets have not seen a doctor because when they got out of the service, they didn't file appropriately for the necessary benefits," Johnson said.

Johnson, a veteran of the United States Army, serves as chairman of community liaison outreach for the group.

"We want all of the veterans that are a part of this group to be ambassadors, to be educated and well-trained not only by our Orangeburg County Veterans Affairs Office here in Orangeburg," but other professionals in the other fields such as mental health and education, he said.

"We have those skilled people to come in to educate our vets about those services. ... So we want to equip them to be able to refer a fellow vet to the appropriate services that they need. Let's give ourselves some self-help. There's a slogan now that indicates that 'We appreciate your service.' Well, we want vets to show that appreciation first for one another and be in position to help," Johnson said.

He said Vets Helping Vets helps veterans in all aspects of their care.

"We can never have enough advocacy groups to really stand up with the issues that are pertinent to veterans. ... What sets us apart from the other groups is our basic mission. That mission is to help all of our veterans in a holistic manner, not just with suicide prevention, even though that's a main part.

"The stats right now is 20 veterans a day commit suicide. That is a very alarming rate. And we want to look at the total vet and identify those needs and address those specific needs," Johnson said.

Bob Hall, public affairs specialist with the Columbia VA Health Care System, said in an email that the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act requires the Veterans Health Administration to complete a number of activities, including conducting annual evaluations of mental health care and suicide prevention programs, establishing a community outreach program for transitioning veterans and collaborating with nonprofit organizations on suicide prevention.

Vets Helping Vets is one of them.

"The Clay Hunt Team within the Columbia VA Health Care System provides training, to include topics such as military culture, transitioning to civilian status, stress and mental health, navigating the VA system and suicide prevention resources," Hall said.

"The team works with community partners in offering regularly occurring meetings, including one at Christ Central in the Midlands and the Vets Helping Vets meeting in Orangeburg led by Dr. Robert Johnson, Vets Helping Vets coordinator.

"One unique component of the Clay Hunt initiative involves the participation of a certified peer support specialist who is active in their own recovery and has been trained to help others," he said.

All VA health care facilities now provide same-day services in primary and mental health for veterans who need them.

"We encourage any veteran, family member or friend concerned about a veteran's mental health to contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255. Trained professionals are also available to chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net. The lines are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Hall said.

Johnson said Vets Helping Vets makes referrals for veterans needing mental health services.

He added that the group keeps abreast of legislation which goes through the state General Assembly to "make sure that those bills are in support of veterans and we have the opportunity to give input on what is needed."

"As a group, we are unified to talk to our legislative leaders to talk about laws and policies that are passed that not only affect veterans, but that affect the community with people that need help the most. We do outreach services, we partner with the Orangeburg Area Boys and Girls Club. In addition to that, we have started visiting nursing homes and identifying the vets wherever they are.

"This past November on Veterans Day, we went to The Methodist Oaks and did a program for the veterans that were residing there. We're looking to do community outreach and get the community involved," Johnson said.

He added, "We're looking to form relationships with the local (Orangeburg County) Legislative Delegation and definitely churches. We have formulated a partnership with Good Shepherd Community Ministries, and we want to establish a relationship with employers because all of our veterans have a specific occupational skill that they can contribute to the workforce."

Johnson welcomes other veterans to become a part of Vets Helping Vets.

"We enjoy the fellowship with one another, sharing stories, listening and being in a position to help meet the needs the vets have as an individual or as a group. We invite veterans from all branches of the military that want to participate to give us a call at 803-308-6908."

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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