By Veterans, For Veterans
By Dave Baker
The former Commissioners of the Connecticut Department of Labor fixed a collective gaze on me from behind antiquated picture frames. Adorning the main lobby of the CT Department of Labor building, their portraits comprise a wall of fame, or shame, depending on the state of the current job market. After checking in with the security guard at the front desk, he called up to the Director of Veterans Workforce Development Terry Brennan to verify my appointment and politely asked me to wait.
“Sorry, but Terry’s not in today. They’re sending someone else down for you.”
Terry, a lean-figured man with a noticeable limp and grizzled voice surprisingly came down to the lobby and brought me up to his office on the fourth floor. “We get real busy up there – can’t meet with everyone coming through,” Brennan said of his initial absence. His office pays homage to the United States Military. Recruitment posters, memorabilia, and numerous plagues and certificates earned over the course of a 27-year career in the United States Navy leave little doubt that the man helping today’s veterans navigate the worst economy since the Great Depression is one of their own. Staffed entirely by former servicemen, VWD is a federally funded program, acting independently within the CT Dept. of Labor. Rooted in former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legislation that established the G.I. Bill of Rights and Title 38, VWD is one of only five such programs nationwide, intent on providing veterans with employment and education following their service.
Through one-on-one assessment, VWD employees work with veterans to identify fields they are best suited for, based on the capacity they served in the military. Potential employers update the VWD on job openings and listings, which VWD staff in turn inform their clients of. The anticipated downsizing of the US military has Washington and veterans service providers across the nation bracing for relatively younger veterans, well versed in military training but may be lacking in practical application, to enter a cutthroat and competitive job market. “We’ve been involved over there [Iraq and Afghanistan] for ten years, some 4.2 million veterans have served. Congress has been fairly good with funding these programs. How long that will last? I don’t know. We’re expecting a large number of veterans to be coming out of the military and needing civilian work,” Brennan said. Despite the attention given to the concerns over future employment for returning servicemen, a route Brennan points many clients towards is education. Through the G.I. Bill, veterans are allotted nearly $75,000 in educational benefits, a fact that bodes especially well for younger vets. Rampant unemployment among veterans between the ages of 18-24 is, as Brennan believes, a skewed figure due to the number of veterans attending universities, community colleges, or vocational schools. “When I talk to them, I tell them: You have $75,000 in one of the worst economies we’ve ever had. Go to school. When the economy picks up, you’ll have the skills, you’ll have the education to go get a job.”
Working with the VWD hardly constitutes a “desk job.” Staff members are constantly moving across the state, visiting college campuses, VA hospitals, veteran’s homeless shelters and state correctional institutions. “Wherever the veterans are we try to go. Getting back from deployment, you really don’t want to go sit in a government office, hang around and wait for an appointment.” Among the services available to veterans, whether through state, federal, or nonprofit programs, assistance for veterans being released from prison is seldom in short supply. VWD staff meets with clients prior to their release, direct them to homeless shelters with available space if need be, and works closely with the Bridgeport-based Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program. Thirty days prior to a veteran ex-offender’s release, an IVTP representative arranges for a place to stay and lays the groundwork for helping clients find employment.
The state of Connecticut boasts a veteran population of nearly 10 percent, a relatively high number for a smaller state, coupled with a tight-knit, effective network of state and non-profit organizations working to ease the transition many veterans face from the structure of military life, to the drudgeries of society. Brennan feels Connecticut is an ideal state for readjustment. “We’re lucky in Connecticut. We have a coalition, the O.E.F/O.I.F [Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom] Coalition, made up of veteran service providers. We meet every month to discuss the needs of the veterans.” Regardless of the long hours spent in the office or on the road, the fulfillment Brennan feels from working with Connecticut’s veterans stems from a sense of duty and obligation only understood by a military man. “There’s a motto among veterans: we leave no one behind.”