Commentary

How COVID-19 shifted the way we support veterans

School districts, small businesses, and major retail companies have been forced to adapt and adjust how they conduct operations and serve their customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, veteran service organizations must adjust their support tactics now and for months to come, especially if their goal is to reach the most vulnerable among the veteran population.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, while the rate of COVID-19 cases among their patient population is falling, the death rate continues to increase. Military Times reported early last week that “coronavirus patients within the Veterans Affairs health system rose almost 6 percent overnight” — pushing the total for the last two months to nearly 1,000 fatalities…”

Elderly veterans, just like in the civilian population, are particularly vulnerable to this virus. Coronavirus claimed the lives of at least 80 veterans at an elder care facility in Massachusetts, accounting for at least one third of its residents. Recent news reports also revealed the devastation at New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, where 74 former members of the U.S. military died of COVID related illnesses.

Meanwhile, other vulnerable segments of our nation’s veteran population are struggling. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 40,056 veterans are homeless on any given night. While many Americans are currently feeling the pinch from income disruptions or job losses, those suffering from homelessness are at risk of losing access to life-saving resources like food and hygiene products.

The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans reports about 1.4 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

At the same time, while VA hospitals are working around the clock to ensure the safety and health of their patients, COVID-19 has cut off much of the traditional volunteer support provided to veterans inside their facilities.

VA hospitals that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, like John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, are extending their no-visitor policies until as far out as 2021. Others are planning to extend no-visitor policies to only portions of their hospitals, like the polytrauma units which house veterans and service members with both combat and civilian related traumatic brain injury (TBI) and polytrauma.

For these patients, this means little to no contact with the outside world for months to come.

Pre-COVID, our nonprofit Soldiers’ Angels was one of the few nonprofit agencies with approval to work within VA hospitals. Our volunteers would regularly make in-person visits to VA patients to lift their spirits while delivering much needed supplies or care packages.

Rather than waiting for policies to become less restrictive, we have shifted our tactics so that veterans and their caregivers get the support they need now — when they need it most.

To reach the COVID-affected veteran population, we are providing tablets and devices for veteran patients at VA’s to video chat with family and/or virtually visit with Soldiers’ Angels staff and volunteers, as well as providing medical transport for homeless COVID positive veterans to get to designated quarantine housing facilities.

We are continuing to provide supplies and support to deployed service members in their fight against COVID around the country, like the Texas National Guard who deployed to help to disinfect VA nursing homes to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Our existing monthly mobile food distributions around the country are even more important now. We have expanded to provide hygiene products, as well as serve homeless and low-income veterans who cannot get out due to quarantine measures.

Yet, like many services among varying industries and sectors, much of our volunteerism has also gone virtual. Thankfully, our nonprofit has been a virtual-focused volunteer organization for the past 17 years, and we are doubling down on many of those programs to meet the current need.

Thousands of our volunteer “angels” are working tirelessly — and virtually — amid the COVID-19 pandemic to provide aid and comfort to the military-connected community.

Soldiers’ Angels has a number of virtual “teams” that are already a large part of our core programs that will be active through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Right now, they are busily writing cards of support, baking treats, and sewing masks and blankets for VA hospitals and veteran-focused assisted living facilities. Our organization is also welcoming virtual volunteer support from any person, family, or business who wants to participate.

The COVID-19 crisis is a fluid situation, changing every day, and so are the needs of our nation’s most vulnerable veterans. As they served our country with honor, we must rise to the challenge of finding every opportunity to serve them.

Amy Palmer is the president and CEO of Soldiers’ Angels, a national nonprofit providing aid, comfort, and resources to the military, veterans, and their families. Learn more at SoldiersAngels.org.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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