- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Noble Conrad served in Vietnam in the Army parachute infantry. He described the work recently as “very dangerous,” and he was there about a year when he began to have “difficulties in country.”
For decades, Conrad said, “I got no assistance.” During the past winter, he said, he had some family problems, arguments and stress intensified. “I was asked to leave,” he said.
“My son and I just hit the streets with no place to go.” Then, he got in touch with Three Oaks Center, where a team helped him find “a nice little home” in Lexington Park.
On Friday, Conrad sat in on a meeting hosted by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), and attended by Southern Maryland service providers who help veterans find critical resources. They crowded around a conference table at the Three Oaks Center administrative offices in Lexington Park, and sat in chairs along the walls to discuss barriers they face in getting services to Southern Maryland veterans, like Conrad, and ways they’re working to help vets overcome those challenges. Last summer, Hoyer also announced a $219,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to Three Oaks. The funds were designated to help provide services to about 200 families.
The center has gotten about 119 referrals for veterans in need of services. They’ve been able to enroll 70 of them, placing about 51 in housing. Also, 19 have been helped with bills and rent, according to a program manager.
Because the backlog at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can be so difficult to navigate, professionals who offer mental health, social services, housing assistance, transportation and social workers meet informally twice a month to discuss who needs help and how to get it to them, according to Lanny Lancaster, executive director at Three Oaks.
They call themselves “the interdisciplinary team,” Lancaster said after the meeting.
“When somebody comes into the program, [the support] is pretty intensive for a month or two,” Lancaster said. They meet about that individual, perhaps monthly, and then as needed. A case manager then “stays with them,” he said, ensuring that they do what’s needed to stay on the right track — anything from staying healthy, to taking their medication and keeping their appointments.
Other needs came up during the discussion Friday, including a need for more collaboration with medical professionals in the areas where veterans live, more accessible transportation to the VA in Washington, and working phone numbers when veterans dial in for assistance to government hotlines.
In 2011, Al Brewster founded Southern Maryland Battle Buddies, an organization that provides peer-to-peer counseling for veterans, because of his frustration with the VA. They’re “arrogant, aloof and distant,” said Brewster, who retired from the Air Force. He’s fortunate to have health insurance, he said. But veterans who don’t sometimes give up.
The Baltimore regional office of the VA says on its website that it has a staff of 218 serving 484,013 veterans in all counties of Maryland.
Brewster focuses on what he can do for veterans and has now has 12 trained Battle Buddies. The support includes someone who will be “a skilled listener” to a vet’s concerns as early as 3 a.m., or take him or her to medical appointments, or to job training. Brewster said he also collaborates with a veteran’s committee through the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, which estimates some 39,000 veterans live in the region.
The federal government and Congress should be working to fix the disconnect, Brewster said. “I’m concerned about these guys,” he said. “How many of these suicides are because people can’t get what they need?”
Kathleen O’Brien, executive director of Walden, said that addiction and mental health concerns need to be addressed for many veterans who are in crisis. O’Brien had a brother who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, “and that might be why I have a heightened awareness,” she said. Her brother came home, “not the same, but he did come home.”
When vets first come for help, they’re often talking about food and more permanent shelter. The service providers then work to build relations with them, she said, and learn what other type of assistance they might need. “You really meet people where they are,” she said.
Today, that can include issues with traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress and dealing with life in a war zone where there is no front line; where the danger can be in capital cities, under the ground, in the air and 360 degrees around war fighters, whether they’re holding guns or sitting at desks.
She has sat at the informal roundtables with Lancaster for years. What’s new, she said, is that more veterans are coming through their doors. They have “unique issues that we have to look at ways to address,” O’Brien said.
Conrad, of Lexington Park said he’s happy with the services provided to him, through the collaboration of community service providers and Three Oaks Center. The new home, the support, he said, “it’s the best thing that’s happened to me.”