UT System’s Leadership Development & Veterans’ Affairs Office is working to serve diverse groups of veterans across the state.
By Daniel Oppenheimer
Editor, Texas Health Journal
When the UT System Leadership Development & Veterans’ Affairs Office launched in 2015, under the leadership of Major General (U.S. Army, Retired) Tony Cucolo, the “veterans” part of its mandate was both straightforward and ambitious. What was straightforward was the mission: students, faculty, and staff with military backgrounds, as well as their families, should get the support they need to flourish on campus.
What was ambitious was the scale. Across its eight academic and six health institutions, UT System educates more students than any other state university system in Texas. UT System awards 33% of all undergraduate degrees and 66% of all health professions degrees in the state. The System is also the one of the largest employers in Texas, which is projected to become the most veteran-populated state in the country by 2037. To fully serve its veterans and their families, the System is working on tracking not just the number of veterans but their diversity along with the diversity of their needs, which vary widely across the state and the 14 UT institutions.
The good news is that an excellent infrastructure is already in place at each of the campuses, said Dr. Larry Wallace Jr., Director of Veterans Support & Leadership Programs at UT System. The System’s role, he said, is to provide support to the campuses, facilitate collaboration and cooperation within and across campuses, and help bring the campuses together with external stakeholders.
“There’s a lot to coordinate,” said Wallace. “Texas has the most women veterans in the nation, the most active service members after California. It’s a big state, a big system, and a lot of responsibility.”
At the center of UT System’s efforts to support its veterans is a new UT Veterans Leadership Task Force that Cucolo, Wallace, and their colleagues helped convene to bring campus representatives together with a broad array of federal, state, and local stakeholders. The Task Force now includes over 40 representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Texas Veterans Commission, the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, major Texas health care systems, the Texas A&M University System, local health departments, and city and county governments.
Although the Task Force is relatively new, it has already initiated a number of projects. One is a push to implement nationally recognized certificate programs for Cognitive ProcessingTherapy (CPT), a therapy aimed specifically at trauma-related issues, in each of UT’s health science centers. The goal is to increase the workforce of providers trained to treat PTSD and other trauma-related conditions, and therefore to support not just Texas’ population of service members and veterans, but also first responders (e.g., police officers, firefighters, EMTs, etc.) and other professionals in high-intensity fields. Trauma treatment is also a career path, said Wallace, that veterans may be particularly interested in pursuing.
The Task Force is also working to better connect the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) with campus and local community health services. In doing so, it hopes to mitigate redundancies, give providers more access to patient information, improve patient outcomes and experience, and increase the efficient use of federal, state, and local taxes.
“Imagine someone is applying for benefits from the VA, like disability and compensation pay, but they’ve been receiving care through campus and local health services,” said Wallace. “A decision may be prolonged by the VA or even denied simply because the two systems weren’t connected. The veteran may also have been paying co-pays and fees they wouldn’t have had to pay if using VA referred services. That’s the kind of thing we need to fix.”
Long term, said Wallace, UT System Administration and its institutions are striving to serve as a model for others, in Texas and nationally, in supporting and educating military and affiliated populations. This means not just providing necessary services, and improving coordination, but making sure that campus cultures are ones in which veterans feel comfortable identifying as such, and properly incentivized to do so. That’s a trickier task, said Wallace, than some people may assume.
“In so much of the messaging around veterans, it’s the heartaches that are depicted,” said Wallace, “If I knew nothing of the military I would assume depression, PTSD, severe injuries, substance abuse, and things like that are most of what it means to have served. That stigma leads a lot of veterans to avoid self-identifying.”
Too often, said Wallace, the assumption of both veterans and civilians is that the only point of self-identifying is to get help for such problems or to make use of two or three well-known benefits (e.g. the GI Bill for education, and VA loans for home-buying). It’s understandable, then, that many veterans won’t make themselves known on campus, when they could make use of other services.
“Our goal is to help change that equation,” said Wallace. “We’re not asking them to self-identify so that we can fix them, which I think is often the fear. The point is to support them in getting the credentials they need, the jobs they want, the lifestyle they desire. There are so many benefits available that many veterans just don’t know about.”
To get to the point where veterans are self-identifying at a much higher rate, Wallace and his colleagues are working to raise awareness, and correct misconceptions, among both veterans and those on campus who are supporting them. That entails, among other things, shifting and re-framing the message around veterans from a deficits-based to a strengths-based orientation. It also entails recognizing that better equipping veterans to succeed in school, at work, and in the community is a potential means of mitigating the higher mental health and substance abuse risks that veterans face.
“The leading cause of veteran suicide is not PTSD,” said Wallace, “but the systematic challenges of acclimating to life outside the military. Providing physical and mental wellness services to those who need it is important, but that’s just a piece of what successfully transitioning is about. It’s also about learning how to translate military experience and accolades into self-promoting language for civilian resumes, LinkedIn accounts, and job interviews. It’s about figuring out how to quickly assess someone’s professional status without the benefit of a standard organizational chart, ranking system, or transferable duty descriptions. It’s about taking advantage of the services made available to those that are and have put their life on the line in the name of our country.”
The office is approaching all of its initiatives, said Wallace, with an experimental attitude and hope that successes can be replicated and scaled, and failures learned from.
“Our student and employee population is representative of our state’s large and diverse population,” Wallace said, “If we can develop successful programs internally, with the task force’s assistance, there is a good chance of transferability, without huge modification, to other stakeholders. That’s good for The University of Texas System, the State of Texas, and potentially the country.”