VA turns focus on local aid outreach

The state Department of Veterans Affairs has programs to help Washington’s citizen-soldiers readjust to civilian life, but many don’t take advantage of them, department director John Lee said.

Fewer than one-third of the more than 11,500 citizen-soldiers who have been called into federal service since fall 2001 have used the state’s programs, he said.

His agency is making a big push to let these veterans know that help is available, particularly as he expects thousands more citizen-soldiers will need job assistance, financial help and counseling in coming years. The number of returnees “could double and triple — given potential future deployments,” Lee said.

Lee said he’s confident that most of those the agency hasn’t heard from have made a successful transition back to their jobs and families, but “I’d like to verify they’re doing OK.”

He’s concerned that some veterans facing problems might be unaware of his agency’s programs or too embarrassed to seek help.

The agency, he continued, has “help with any social need they could be confronted with.”

For instance, the state Legislature in 2006 created the Veterans Innovations Program, which provides emergency financial assistance to National Guard and Reserve members who served in Afghanistan, Iraq or domestic homeland-security missions. The program also distributes grants to help returnees and their families secure better-paying jobs by supplementing wages and paying tuition.

The Veterans Conservation Corps enables all veterans to volunteer on environmental restoration projects to learn job skills and, in some cases, earn college credit.

Another program is aimed at counseling veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and their families.

Shameka Henson, 26, of Olympia participates in the Veterans Conservation Corps. She served four years in the Army and cared for wounded soldiers during a deployment to Iraq with the 62nd Medical Brigade based at Fort Lewis.

She said that after seeing destruction in Iraq, she enjoys being able to contribute here by planting trees and restoring stream habitat. It’s therapeutic and has provided her with valuable hands-on training, she said. She will begin classes in the fall in the University of Washington’s environmental-science program.

“It’s helped me move on and not only that, it’s been beneficial for my overall career,” she said of the program.

Clint Sheehan, 30, helped build roads during his deployment to Afghanistan with the 864th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy), also based at Fort Lewis.

Sheehan said that upon his return, he received guidance from the state agency about the benefits available to him. He now works for a Puyallup-based construction company and plans to go to college. He’s interested in becoming a counselor to veterans.

“They’re not just leaving us flapping in the wind,” he said of the assistance available. “They’re going to take care of us.”

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or