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When you leave the military, the biggest question is "what's next?" It's a scary job market right now, but the skills you've received in the military make you highly marketable. The Legion sponsors dozens of veterans hiring fairs each year, and our employment experts also provide tips to writing resumes, networking and making a strong impression in the interview process.

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Stand Down at Winterhaven

Stand Down at Winterhaven
(Photo by Marty Callaghan)

Each winter the VA Medical Center in Washington opens its doors to homeless veterans, giving them free health care and other services to help improve their quality of life. The annual Winterhaven Stand Down for Homeless/At-Risk Veterans gets a lot of volunteers, including members of The American Legion’s national staff.

“We’ve been involved with this event for over 15 years,” said Mark Walker, deputy director of the Legion’s Economic Division. “Winterhaven is a one-day, one-stop shop where homeless veterans can get a variety of free services – health screenings, legal aid, help with PTS and substance-abuse issues, women’s health consultations, housing assistance and flu vaccinations.”

If they wish, veterans also get free lunch and haircuts. Walker says The American Legion primarily helps veterans at Winterhaven with disability claims, discharge reviews, education benefits and job assistance.

Winterhaven excels in providing health-care services: blood pressure and weight checks, HIV screening, eye exams and even nutritional evaluations. “These are the kinds of basic things we do in order to identify any potential risk factors that individuals have for the most common kinds of medical conditions,” said Dr. Maria Llorente, the center’s associate chief of staff for mental health.

A few stops at the stand down are mandatory, including the one for HIV screening, “because, unfortunately, the District of Columbia has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the country,” said Dr. Virginia Kan of the center’s infectious diseases clinic. Veterans are educated on how HIV is transmitted and, with their permission, given oral swab tests for preliminary screenings. Those with positive results are given a Western Blot Test; if that is also positive, it means the patient has an HIV infection and is invited that same day to get health care at the clinic.

All of this is free of charge to the veterans. “We believe veterans should be tested, and it is part of VA policy that HIV testing is part of veterans’ routine medical care,” Kan said. “That’s been the case since 2009.”

Monica Irmler, an infection control nurse at the center for the last 18 years, has noted a steady increase in the numbers of homeless veterans taking advantage of Winterhaven’s services, “and I’ve also seen an increase in interest about HIV prevention, especially after we educate them about it.”

Because homelessness causes a great deal of personal stress, mental-health and substance-abuse counseling is also available at Winterhaven. “Sometimes, homelessness can be caused by these kinds of problems, and sometimes people become homeless from other causes and end up with mental-health and substance-abuse issues,” Llorente said. “(Winterhaven wants to) provide as much information about the common kinds of psychiatric illnesses we see amongst our homeless veterans, and how to get connected with treatment here.”

This year, on Jan. 21, nearly 500 veterans got meaningful help at Winterhaven, including about 30 women veterans. The stand down is so successful, Llorente said, “because we’ve got great community partners” who offer a wide variety of free services, including housing options. “One of the things we have found is that we have a large proportion of individuals who are at-risk of losing their homes due to mortgage foreclosures. So we’ve got the loan guaranty folks here from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and people who can help with renegotiating mortgages with their banks.”

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who also paid a visit to Winterhaven, echoes the importance of community support in solving the homeless veterans issue, which he is pledged to eliminate by 2015. “We’ve made progress in a couple of ways,” he said. “One, we’ve harnessed our capability inside VA, and we’ve linked in with lots of partners and communities out there to help us work towards this, and I think the evidence of progress we’ve made is that, whenever we have a homeless meeting, the community comes to our table and we have a very broad discussion.”

Last year, Shinseki says, the country’s homeless veteran population went down by 12 percent. “The power of all of this is the collaboration and the community partnership that we have,” he said.

“It’s a total collaboration,” Llorente says of the Winterhaven effort, “and we are very, very fortunate that we have so many wonderful partners and stakeholders who provide assistance to our veterans. We should never see a veteran who is homeless. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and the least we can do is make sure they have food to eat and a place to stay. So the value of this (stand down) is to say ‘Thank you,’ and do outreach to the men and women who have bravely and selflessly served their country.”

Go to http://youtu.be/fh_iYLbY2pA for a video clip of National Commander Fang A. Wong discussing the homeless veterans issue in a September 2011 interview.

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