WASHINGTON — After Bob Simonovich’s post-traumatic stress disorder left him anxious around large groups, loud noises and unpredictable environments, he was unsure what type of career he’d be able to handle in his post-military life.
So his therapists lined up a job for him with a baseball team.
“I loved baseball my whole life,” said Simonovich, a former Army staff sergeant injured in a bomb blast in Iraq 11 years ago. “But when I got back, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to go to a game again. The crowds, the fireworks, it’s just something I didn’t think I’d be able to do.
“When I could go back there, it meant everything to me.”
Simonovich’s job as a datacaster for the Akron RubberDucks (a minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians) came through the Individual Placement and Support program, designed to match individuals with mental health challenges to potential job opportunities built around their workplace needs.
Earlier this month, Department of Veterans Affairs officials announced plans to partner with nonprofit Social Finance to expand use of the program in VA medical centers. Nearly 500 veterans in the New York and Boston region will take part in what officials hope is the first wave of a broader deployment of the resource.
“We want to make sure our veterans not only have better employment but also better overall health outcomes,” said Melissa Glynn, VA assistant secretary for enterprise integration.
The partnership, dubbed Veterans Coordinated Approach to Recovery and Employment (or Vets CARE), will bring employment experts into VA medical offices to find potential job matches for veterans.
In cases like Simonovich’s, both medical professionals and the outside specialists evaluate the veterans’ strengths, limitations and job goals before speaking to local businesses about openings.
“It’s kind of like having an agent,” said Simonovich, 42, who admits he had doubts about returning to full-time work after four years of therapy.
“I didn’t think I was ready to start work again at all,” he said. “But my doctors felt like it was time for a push. They could see it even if I couldn’t.”
Simonovich said he was excited by the prospect of working at a baseball stadium but worried about the constant activity of the ballpark. He started last spring, and team officials eased him in by giving him a quiet space during the game for his work and time to familiarize himself with the stadium.
Before games, he would spend a few minutes walking along the crowded concourse to “push myself, make myself a little uncomfortable.” When it became too overwhelming, he’d retreat to the press box and his small group of supportive co-workers.
This summer’s work included meetings with the players and fill-in work at Progressive Field in Cleveland, tracking the big-league team he grew up rooting for. When the regular season ended, Simonovich transitioned to a similar data job with a baseball academy, confident he could walk into a new workplace and succeed.
Program officials said they’ve already established a network of business contacts to provide similar matches to other veterans. For some, family and lifestyle demands may require part-time work or limits on their availability. For others, employers may need better education or support resources to help new veteran employees start working.
“Guys who are at that point may not even know they’re ready to hold a job,” Simonovich said. “I didn’t know what I could do. So this program was the key.”
More information on the new partnership is available on the Social Finance web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.