For this edition of the Breaking Barriers News Blog, we interviewed Kelly Durkee-Erwin. Kelly works for the Boston VA Healthcare system as an Individual Placement and Support (IPS) Specialist, this program aims to move veterans experiencing homelessness and mental health or substance use disorders into competitive employment rapidly as part of an integrated treatment approach.
written by MNF's Healthcare Liaison, William Francis Donahue, Ph.D.
A MILITARY FAMILIES CALL TO ACTION
Kelly is also the Senior Vice President of the VFW Auxiliary-Post 2394 in Melrose. In her spare time, Kelly hosts the show “Kelly’s Heroes” on The Waltham Channel (WCAC-TV) which provides the local community with information related to Veteran issues and highlights the stories of Veteran Servicemen.
Kelly is a Gold Star granddaughter, a Purple Heart Family Member (two times), and a Blue Star Sister (three times). Kelly is also active in local and State planning and serves on Waltham and Massachusetts housing Boards, as well as the Board of the Waltham Arts Council.
Thank you for making time to speak with us today, Kelly. Could you explain a little bit about the work that you do with the VA and the IPS employment services?
I work for the Boston VA Healthcare through the Tuscaloosa VA. They funded the research that we did, which just became a program, that proves to the VA that Individual Placement and Support in Supported Employment (IPSSE), is not a fad. It helps get our veterans back to work, for some people, it is just helping them write their own, or fill out a job application. Many of our veterans, when they're transitioning out of the military, are injured and they are unable to perform their former job. Everyone says you're back from the military, just go back to work. Well, being in a combat situation and being in a civilian situation isn't the same, and not everyone transitions the same.
So, the VA, after four years of intense research and study, has turned their research into a program, and they're now expanding it nationwide, New England has already embraced it and will be moving to Rhode Island soon. This program is helping service members immensely.
Each IPS has about a 20-to-25-person caseload. We help them to return to civilian work. But if you can't do the job that you did before, because it depended on that limb that's missing, or for whatever reason, we work in partnership with Vocational Rehab Employment (VRE), with Mass hire, the Easter Seals Job placement program, and the mass Rehab Commission. We work together to get the veterans to the best job, to fit their current whole health (https://www.va.gov/wholehealth/ ) because there are some jobs you do in the military you can't do in the civilian world. All the employment specialists in each of these groups have a bit of a niche.
Is this service available to all veterans or just veterans with disabilities?
It used to be. It was originally a program that was developed for the disabled, and the spine injured so they would not just be kept at home or in Group homes with no future. Because they can contribute, right? In this specific program that I work with, there are other IPSs that help veterans with other disorders, but we focus on veterans with specific obstacles to employment, not necessarily combat-related. It can be from a car accident or something else in your life. It used to be when we first started it was only combat-related because that's how the original funders wanted it to be, but now it can be anything.
Are there Incentives for employees to hire veterans or veterans with disabilities?
There are and I'm glad you asked because there's a whole tax incentive program that we send the form to employers when they hire a veteran. If they are unfamiliar, we try to tell the veteran to bring it up in their interview as well.
To learn more: https://www.military.com/hiring-veterans/resources/tax-credits-for-hiring-veterans.html
What are some of the things that you're seeing veterans struggling with, whether it be access to health care or non-healthcare-related issues? What are some of the things that need attention that really are hard to address?
Number one, I'd say the transition from military to civilian life. The way that Veterans are transitioned out has changed drastically in the last 20 years with the Transition Assistance Program (TAPS) that they have now. However, the transition is still difficult from military to civilian life. Especially when you have a military injury, and you thought the military was going to be your whole career. Then they process you out, and then what do I do? It's about not having enough resources. I think the VA's embracing that. That's why they did this study, and why they're starting to roll it out nationally. They know there's a need to help people transition from the military.
Financial assistance provided by the Medic Now Foundation Inc. is also needed. This is a program that nowhere else in the country is being offered. Someone gets sent to a dentist and the military doesn't cover it.
The big three in my opinion would be housing, finance, and transition. I think those things increase the stress in their lives, then add PTSD into the mix, with everything that they have seen in combat, and some of these young men and women have seen things that I can never imagine right? That’s why they call us civilians with a capital C on some days because we don't understand. I don't need to have seen what they've seen to be able to try to help them. Another thing is the misconception of post-traumatic stress. It doesn't matter what people say. Oh, well, you flew a drone, so you can't have it. People need to embrace the fact that service members didn't all go through the same thing, but they all served, and it’s stressful.
As you know our Healthcare Cost Assistance Program (HCAP), gives them the flexibility to manage their healthcare where and when they need it. With your background and experience, how do you see that mission impacting military members the most?
I'm going to say your highest needs in dental because the VA only covers people who are 100% Combat-related to cover dental work. I know service members who haven't seen a dentist in years because you get your routine checkup they get once a year and that's it. It doesn't matter what else is wrong with you, and you don't have the money to pay for it, especially if you're a Guardsman or reservist. I'm sorry, but they just don't have the money to pay for it.
You come from a family with a distinguished record of military service. You are the sister of three combat veterans. Your grandfather was killed in action in World War 2. I assume this is the inspiration for you being a part of the VFW Auxiliary?
Yes, and my other grandfather, my father's father, also served. He was a combat veteran from World War One. My mother's father, John, died in combat in World War 2 in 1945. The war had just ended, and he was killed by troops who did not realize that the war was over.
His square is about 1/2 mile from Jamaica Plain VA. There is a placard on it. It's neat, and it's great to see it when I go to work in the VA once a week I pass by. My dad and his brother and several of my other uncles also served during Vietnam. My dad was a Captain in the army during Vietnam, so I guess we’ve always been a Gold Star, Blue Star, and Purple Heart family. I have a brother that's still active. I've had three in my lifetime. My grandfather got his (Purple Heart) posthumously, my youngest brother got his about 10 years ago and it has been very, very difficult coming home with a traumatic brain injury.
I started in the auxiliary because I think I've always served veterans. It just wasn't a question in our house, everyone in my house has been a public servant. I think since my mother's father, my father's father, and my parents were public servants, that's just what I do, and veterans have a special place in my heart.
I’d like to ask what's the most rewarding thing about your participation.
It’s really my work, and I don't separate my work there from the work I do with the VA. It’s knowing that people are getting the help that they have earned. Our Veterans have said, “I will defend you even if you're anti-government, anti-military, anti-whatever, hateful, mean, grumpy.” The America that they fight for is everybody, including me, who's done nothing. They don't know me from a grain of sand, and they'll defend my right to be. If I want to be a jerk, they'll defend my right to be a jerk.
So, when they come home and they're in need, it offends me, morally, and personally, and it hurts my heart. I don't sleep at night when I talk to some of my veterans, and I listen to the pain they've been caused. Most veterans do not want help because they're the helpers. They don't want to ask for help. I just enjoy being able to help them. But organizations like yours, that say they help veterans, I like making them stand up to the words that they write on paper. Yours (Medic Now Foundation Inc.) is easy. You say it and you do it.
I feel a moral obligation based on my upbringing, to make sure the veterans get what they have earned, which is respect, and they should be able to live in this country without medical debt. We don't have enough mental health counselors in this country, and they deserve to get the help they need.
I wanted to talk a bit about your cable show Kelly’s Heroes.
That is my greatest guilty pleasure. I was so excited when they asked me. It's not work. It's such a joy. It's so much fun.
So how did It get started?
Well, in Waltham, the current Waltham Cable Access company executive director is Maria Sheehan, and we were at a Chamber of Commerce Event, and she said to me, “I want you to do a Veterans show”. A serious show that I could do once a month about Veterans. Then the show’s producer, who also produces the City Council show, who is my middle brother, who is also in the National Guard, and a city Councilor member, came up with a name for Kelly's heroes, Like after the movie. Also, there's another woman who's wanted to do a veteran show for a long time. This ended up being my Co-host, Carol Malone, who was my auxiliary president at the time, and I love her. She thinks about things I don't think of, and I think we make a great team due to her background. She talks about her husband’s experiences back when he just got home from Vietnam, and how the wives formed groups and talked to each other.
Things like this become important as veterans get older because I don't want to lose their stories. I know that Massachusetts, the VFW, and the American Legion just partnered with the National Oral History Project to collect some of those stories, and much like my dad, we got his story right before his Alzheimer's kicked in. I don't think he could tell his story today, but a year ago we were able to collect it.
How long have you been doing the show?
Well, I think this is our 4th year because we did our first in February 2020
My last question about your show is, is there something about the show that you've learned, some insight or is that something that you didn't expect?
Yes, the way it has inspired other people, and because it's also on demand on the Internet, my brother was able to watch my dad's interview in Denmark. WE’RE GLOBAL!
Thank you so much, for your one-on-one interview today, and for all your work for our military community every day.