FARGO - When a service member leaves the military and resides in a small town in North Dakota, it can be difficult to maintain connections with services and programs available to them as veterans. A program administered by the North Dakota National Guard works to overcome that. Military Outreach specialists across the state are trained to help veterans locate the programs and benefits available to them, whether they served one enlistment in the Navy, retired after 30 years in the Army with a couple of combat tours, were married to a now-deceased veteran or are serving in today's Guard, Reserve or active-duty forces.
The Outreach specialists have military backgrounds and scour counties in their areas to make personal connections with veterans and their families and employers. They coordinate with local county Social Services offices, county Veterans Service Officers, national service organizations, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Vet Centers to help veterans with a wide range of issues related to the military, medical problems, child-related issues, education, housing, substance abuse, religion, family, psychological needs, financial problems, personal counseling, employment, marital counseling and sustained support.
Gov. John Hoeven proposed the concept for the Outreach Team in 2009, and the North Dakota legislature showed their support for the concept and program.
Since the program began a little more than a year ago, the five-member team has reached out to 13,953 veterans across the state and taken on an additional 967 as clients who needed immediate assistance. The program has now reached 24 percent of the state's veterans, which total 57,700.
"Broad base support has been critical in helping us to reach out to service members and veterans from so many branches of service, both present day and from decades ago," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general.
No two of those connections are the same.
"Military Outreach is consistently used as a resource by the VA in the Minot community," said Kelli Weiand, a Military Outreach specialist for the northwest and central region of North Dakota. "I receive inquiries from employees at the VA seeking resources for their clients in the Minot area. With my familiarity of those resources, I can make suggestions to fit the requests of the VA employees and keep their clients' names confidential. This is great for the veterans because it allows for a personal touch. It is just another way that Outreach is a benefit to the veterans in the areas that we serve."
Many connections happen when an Outreach specialist strikes out in the community with the goal of meeting veterans, whether it's at a formal event or at the local cafe.
"I was outreaching during a local community celebration, and I was talking with a small group of people about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and one individual stood out. His eyes were sunken, with dark circles underneath, and he had a very difficult time keeping eye contact," said Gary Moore, Military Outreach specialist for the northeast region. "He stepped away, and I excused myself and walked up to him. He was teary eyed. I asked him if he was alright, and he replied yes."
Despite his initial denial, the veteran grew more comfortable and shared some of his deployment experiences, as well as some of the things he had been experiencing, which were in line with PTSD symptoms. Moore made appointments for him to seek help and connected with his wife to ensure they both knew what to do if he experienced any suicidal feelings in the meantime.
In another instance, an Outreach specialist rode along with a veteran in his combine, allowing the man to multitask during harvest. Once the meeting ended, the veteran farmer got on his CB radio to connect with other vets harvesting, and the specialist proceeded from one combine to the next, gathering information to connect them with resources.
Other meetings occur when veterans or their families see the fliers the Outreach specialists have posted across the state. The trust established between the specialists and veterans has led to repeat calls by many vets, who have learned someone is willing to listen and help.
"I was contacted ... by a Vietnam Veteran who was inquiring about how to enroll with the VA. He lives in a small town in my area of operation and has never been provided with the information on how or who to contact in order to register. I provided him with the veterans' service officer's information for the county in which he resides. I also mailed out a form and encouraged him to take a look at it prior to seeing the veterans' service officer," said Vince Dicks, an Outreach specialist in the southeast region.