Mary Johanna Forbes is being honored as a Women Veteran Leaders Champion of Change.
It’s hard for one person to change the world. But with the power of partnerships, more specifically friendships, I truly believe that anything is possible! So when U.S. DVA Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015, I knew without a doubt that my agency, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, would need to enlist the trust, the buy-in and the participation of our friends across the state to achieve this goal in Washington.
We boldly seized the opportunity Secretary Shinseki provided by issuing our own “Call to Action” and held a Statewide Homeless Veterans Housing Summit in June 2010. This was our catalyst to develop and implement our vision to honor Washington’s veterans. We actively engaged and secured commitments from key community partners, promoted best practice models to effectively serve more veterans, and facilitated the coordination of grant requests at the local level. In four years, we’ve been able to show a reduction from 2,800 un-sheltered homeless veterans to less than 1,500. Most importantly, we did this by connecting not-for-profit organizations to grant opportunities so that they could fund their individual operations and help veterans break the cycle of chronic homelessness.
We also focused on incarcerated veterans and helped counties develop veterans courts and other programs connecting veterans with their benefits. Often these wrap-around services help veterans stay on a path to success and self-sufficiency by focusing on treatment, housing and, ultimately, employment. Our current recidivism (repeated incarceration) rate is less than 20% while non-veteran recidivism is over 50%.
We’ve partnered with the Washington State Department of Corrections to develop veterans’ dorms in our state correctional facilities that not only restore pride and dignity to veterans with untreated war trauma issues, but also begin the “upstream” process of connecting them to their VA benefits and other community programs long before they leave prison or while they are in work release. This is an ongoing project with a goal of helping veterans succeed in life after incarceration.
Knowing that the end of the wars meant more military personnel would be separating and joining our civilian workforce, we started a three year project at Joint Base Lewis McChord. This project led to the Veterans Opportunity for Work to Hire Heroes Act proposed by Senator Patty Murray and signed by President Obama in November 2011. The VOW Act is improving services for transitioning service members by focusing on education, employment, entrepreneurship, and apprenticeships. Our model is now used by Transition Assistance Programs worldwide.
At the state level, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed his first Executive Order in January 2013 creating the Washington State Military Transition Council, a collaboration between the military, corporations, state governments and non-profits to break barriers to effective transition and employment for veterans.
I also have the privilege of leading the Washington State Women Veterans Summit where women veterans have opportunities to apply for their benefits, get self-help and assist our agency in spreading the word on the many benefits available to those who have not applied. We are proud that women veterans’ access to care in Washington VA facilities has increased nearly 25% in the past three years!
I have had the opportunity to serve my country, to raise five children, and then the good fortune to become a part of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs where I have the ability to enhance the quality of life for veterans and their families. It is my distinct honor to have been selected as a Champion for Change while serving Washington State’s veterans and their Families.
COL (Retired) Mary Forbes graduated from the US Military Academy in 1983, the US Army War College in 2006 and served on active duty with the US Army and the Washington Army National Guard for over 26 years. As the Assistant Director for Veterans Services for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, Forbes champions the federal and state initiatives to end veteran homelessness.