Serving Veterans in a Community of Champions

Dana Louise Niemela

Dana Louise Niemela is being honored as a Women Veteran Leaders Champion of Change.

What is a veteran? The answer is really quite simple, yet somehow we manage to complicate it daily. Often what we define as a veteran is based on established institutions such as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or our legacy service organizations. For many of us, that definition just does not fit. The simple answer is that a veteran is one who has served in the active duty military.

What are veteran services? If we focus only on the services provided by the VA and the legacy organizations, we are missing the biggest and best part of the puzzleour community. The simple answer is that veteran services are those services that benefit the men and women who have served in the active duty military.

So how are we doing serving those who have served? It’s time for a status check. I write this after having just met with a 28-year-old homeless veteran who served in Iraq. How is this still happening? Haven’t we learned? Many of our brothers and sisters are still coming home from combat tours not knowing which end is up. Many are in need of a strong community support network, stellar mental health care, and significant medical care. Too many of them simply are not getting it. The end result of this lack of support and lack of care is often unemployment. It is homelessness. And it is suicide. Enough already.

We can do better than that. We can expect more of each other as individuals, communities, organizations, and as governments. We should expect more.

My program requires us to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to the ever-evolving, complex problem of homelessness. It encourages us to build strong, supportive service networks. The agency for which I work believes in creating a safety net that empowers individuals to become self-sufficient, breaking the cycle of poverty and homelessness. The city in which I work is thriving with non-profit organizations that know how to break barriers, share resources and ideas, and put the customers’ needs before their own organizational egos.

Together, we all work to find the best combination of ideas and resources to meet the needs of each person standing before us. Then we get up and do it all over again for the next person who walks in the door. And this is happening in every community across the state of Colorado.

Any individual, community, organizational, or government attempt to go it alone is going to fail. It will create additional, arbitrary barriers to individual success. We have seen too much war in our history to not know the outcome if we do not care for those who have served. We are better, smarter, and stronger than the status quo, and it is time we start believing it. We owe it to those who have come before us, who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, to not make the same mistakes. It’s time we set some great expectations and get this right once and for all. No individual, community, organization, or government will get it right by doing it alone. We need to draw on the individual strengths of every player in the game, foster the growth of these local networks that are getting it right, and then we will all be able to claim the title of “Champion for Change.”

Dana Louise Niemela, MSW is a Navy Veteran and the Coordinator of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program for the Denver Department of Human Services in Denver, Colorado.

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