SVA NATCON: ‘The shared journey that forges our bond’
American Legion Veterans Education & Employment Division policy analyst Kevin O’Neil, far right, helps lead a discussion about priorities for student veterans heading into 2024, and beyond. Jeff Stoffer/The American Legion

SVA NATCON: ‘The shared journey that forges our bond’

View Photo Gallery

The meeting room filled with post-9/11 veterans. Soon, they were instructed to assemble in teams, six or more to a table. A team leader was quickly appointed for each group, a QR code was scanned, and ideas flowed. The objective of this mini-think tank: policy priorities for student veterans in 2024 and beyond.

Soon appearing on the screen at the front of the room were terms, some bolder than others, plugged into smartphones by the team leaders. The “word cloud” displayed their thoughts as they talked. Stipend reform. Disconnect. Break pay. Advocating for caregivers. Healthcare reform. Reserve and National Guard transition. Fix work study.

In a sense, this Saturday-afternoon brainstorming session encapsulated much from a multi-faceted final day of sessions at the 16th Annual Student Veterans of America National Conference in Nashville, Tenn. U.S. Coast Guard veteran Tammy Barlet, SVA’s vice president for government affairs, told the group representing college campuses across the country that “SVA’s policy priorities come from conversations just like this.”

After the students completed their discussions, each team leader spoke for the groups. In time, many of the same issues featured during the three-day conference came up – improvements to the GI Bill, mental health support, health-care access, better pre-discharge preparation for transition to civilian life and more.

Leading one table of veterans was Kevin O’Neil, American Legion Veterans Employment & Education Division policy analyst, who offered his group’s support for the Legion’s long-held position that the GI Bill must be made more equitable for members of the National Guard and Reserve components and that their transition challenges must be better addressed.

O’Neil joined American Legion Veterans Employment & Education Division Director Joseph Sharpe and Executive Director James Baca in breakout sessions at the conference, which included a National Headquarters booth that promoted the organization’s Be the One mission to prevent veteran suicide and to introduce young veterans to the organization and its work. Many who visited the Legion booth were Legionnaires already, and American Legion National Commander Daniel Seehafer and Past National Commander Denise Rohan were on hand to greet them. Seehafer spoke at Friday’s Government Affairs general session.

More than 100 breakout sessions and other activities in and around Opryland drew thousands of SVA members from across the country, each with a different story to share with their fellow veterans.

Leading them was Jared Lyon, national president and CEO of SVA since 2016, who reflected in the opening session of the conference on his own journey after discharge. “At the time, I was a 28-year-old Navy veteran … and I stepped into a new chapter. I found myself navigating a new world that seemed designed for a different age group where bureaucratic mazes felt an awful lot more like obstacles than pathways. Back in 2010, I had just finished my associates degree and was a transfer junior at Florida State. I couldn’t have felt more like a fish out of water. My first few weeks on campus was a time of questioning. Was this college journey the right path for me? These experiences, these challenges that we face, they are not just mine – they are ours. It’s the shared journey that forges our bond. Together, we are committed to creating campuses where every student veteran, every military-connected student, every family member, every caregiver, every survivor feels welcomed and like they belong from day one.”

Among the student veterans was American Legion Post 293 Patchogue, N.Y., member Nate Gardner, SVA chapter president at St. Joseph University-Long Island, who drew a standing-room-only crowd to hear his story about a service dog named Kenzo he obtained free of charge from America’s VetDogs that changed his life after severe back and ankle injuries and a battle with cancer. “My life changed the day I met Kenzo,” the Air Force veteran explained. “Learning and training and the help the dogs give is an amazing experience. Better yet, the bond begins to grow between you and the dog. It’s absolutely breathtaking to be in the class, with seven or eight other vets, and see how service dogs are individually helping all the other vets. Everyone is there for their own reason. These dogs are not trained all the same.”

Kenzo, who slumbered at the base of the podium as Gardner talked, demonstrated in the session how the service dog can, for instance, retrieve a mobile phone on command if something happens. Others in attendance – some accompanied by their own service dogs – wept upon hearing about Kenzo’s effect on Gardner, physically and emotionally. “Plainly and simply, they are trained to perform specific tasks and services on command to help. They are different and much more formally trained than emotional support and therapy animals.”

In times of stress or depression, Kenzo “can feel my mental state, as well. I was depressed with a lot of anxiety about my health and my future. Kenzo is trained for PTSD. If I feel overwhelmed, or if I can’t take what’s happening around me, he will come over and put his head on my lap and just stare at me. He will not leave my lap until I’m ready … These dogs do change and save lives.”

He said Kenzo dramatically improved his relationships with others, including his family, as well as other veterans. His service dog accompanies him on campus and in his day-to-day activities.

“It costs us more than $50,000 to breed, raise, train and place every single service dog that we provide,” said Mike Rosen, chief marketing officer of the nonprofit America’s VetDogs, established in 2003. “We do not charge a penny to the people we serve, including flying you from wherever you may live to New York, putting you up for two weeks, where you are in class with a cohort of anywhere from six to 11 other veterans or first responders who are getting their service dogs, and you are then trained at that time. So, we train the humans to be handlers.”

Support for veterans with disability ratings and those facing mental health struggles, school complications, career questions, as well as other transition-related issues were common threads throughout the conference, which included a strong presence by the Department of Veterans Affairs – which brought in disability claims staff, who joined American Legion service officers, in a three-day clinic to help young veterans file for their benefits. VA Secretary Denis McDonough urged the student veterans to file and get enrolled in VA. “We want to serve you,” he told SVA members Friday. “We want you in our care. And we will not rest until we have you in our care. So, please apply for your VA care benefits (and) re-apply if you’ve been denied before.”

One breakout session on Saturday focused on VA’s concentrated effort to stop fraud and exploitation of veterans. Tahina Montoya, Strategic Advisor to the Chief Veterans Experience Officer, led a session to collect from veterans their experiences with fraudulent attempts – a conversation that ranged from unscrupulous schools that fail to provide promised degrees and career opportunities to homeless shelters that consume VA disability compensation from needy veterans and predatory firms that extract veteran benefits and big fees for claims representation often offered free of charge.

VSAFE – Veterans Scam and Fraud Evasion – is an initiative that launched to get after trust,” Montoya told a group of veterans. “Veterans are susceptible to fraud for a variety of different reasons. Just to give you an idea of the fraud landscape, in 2022, it was determined that veterans experienced over $292 million worth of loss. And that is only based on the numbers that have been reported. So, think about the folks who don’t even know that they are being defrauded who, if they do know, they don’t know where to report it or how to report it.”

VSAFE is an effort by VA to corral all the various forms of veteran fraud and exploitation, understand the issue more fully, and act upon it. In December, Montoya said, a presidential task force had its initial meeting “and started talking about how we get after this.”

One way is a VSAFE “listening tour” that has begun to gather examples from veterans across the country, representing nine different demographics, from student veterans to the elderly. “We are going on a six-month sprint to have listening sessions like this to hear straight from the source. We’re not going to assume what the fraud is. We’re not going to assume that because I experienced fraud in this way, it’s the only way or the most prevalent way. We want to hear it straight from the source.” She said VA will be looking to student veterans, staff, veterans service organizations and others to capture all the types of fraud and exploitation occurring.

“Once we hit all of the demographics of the veteran population that we hope to, we’re going to consolidate that information, and it’s going to help inform the resources we develop … and also how we start getting after solutions … All the information that you guys provide is going to inform what we do, and how we further develop, this VSAFE initiative.”

She also let students know that a dedicated VA hotline – 1-800-827-1000 – is available for veterans to report suspected fraud.

Also included in the conference were multiple sessions that demonstrated the importance of community service, fitness and networking with local veterans service organizations and others in communities. Community service and projects like those undertaken by The Mission Continues – which led a Thursday unity project with SVA to revitalize Blue Hole Farm, an eco-friendly community space that augers against food insecurity and advances green technologies – were encouraged for young veterans seeking to attain the same sense of purpose they knew in the military.

“You can’t come home and take off that uniform and thrive without the support of a community,” explained Lisa Hallett, executive director and co-founder of Wear Blue Run to Remember, which led the SVA group on a 1.4-mile Remembrance Run Saturday morning. “Communities possess belongingness and purpose, and we know that those are two important protective factors that fight against suicide. There is power in partnering with our local veterans service organizations so that we can provide opportunities for community and belongingness.”

She later facilitated a panel discussion with veterans leading efforts to strengthen communities and local veterans networks through non-profit programs they represent.

Army combat veteran T’Liza Kiel, director of alumni engagement for The Mission Continues, made the point among her fellow veterans that “Your network is your net worth.”

That point was made clear in hundreds of ways during the conference, among student veterans, caregivers, VA, The American Legion, employers and dozens of others throughout the conference -- including one dog named Kenzo.