By Tawanah Reeves-Ligon
According to the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the number of veterans without homes had already increased in 2020 prior to the damaging effects of the coronavirus.
Furthermore, the Department of Veterans Affairs Administration (VA) reported the rate of veteran suicide continues increasing every year, currently about 20 suicides per day.
Bridging the disconnect between veterans and the benefits and resources available to them is vital. Walking with them through that transition as a means of reducing veteran homelessness and suicide is key to the innovative mobile app and nonprofit service started by Major (R) Eric K. King, who understands personally what it can feel like to make that journey alone.
“After being medically retired from the military, due to injuries sustained from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), I noticed that there were not many programs or advocates in the space between transitioning military service and being introduced to all the benefits provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs,” shared King, VetsWhatsNext Founder (pictured).
VetsWhatsNext Nonprofit Corporation is an empowerment organization committed to building a bridge between the needs of servicemembers under the Department of Defense (DOD) and the opportunities and resources for veterans under the VA. “I personally could not sit and allow this to happen to another service member. VetsWhatsNext was born out of need and a sincere duty to continue serving my fellow teammates after my time was officially done,” said King.
The organization has created an innovative mobile app to assist active-duty servicemembers, veterans and their family members transition into civilian life after the military by offering access to resources, training and further education, if needed. They also have donor drives, host virtual and in-person walk/marathons and established a $2,000 Higher Education Scholarship Foundation that will award dependents of a disabled veteran with a permanent and total service-connected disability 10% or higher rating evaluation from the VA.
“People don’t commit suicide because they’re sad. They commit suicide because it’s their best option,” said Vice President of VetsWhatsNext, Army Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sturdivant. “If they transition the right way, we give them better options; we can put all the resources in their hands.”
With their mobile app, VetsWhatsNext is literally putting resources in the hands of those who need them most. The program can start, for someone on active duty, as early as two years before retirement. Once downloaded, the free app (available on both Google Play and the Apple App Store) will walk through the steps and perform multiple functions from emailing one’s commanding officer (CO) of their intentions to listing materials they should gather in preparation for working with the VA once their service is complete. The app also prompts servicemembers to begin working on their VA disability claims, helping them schedule the necessary doctor’s appointments and needed paperwork.
According to Sturdivant, “The current mobile application is informative. The evolution is that, ideally, the app opens (with gamification) asking if you’re prepared to retire or transition. It then asks when to build your calendar and asks if you wish to inform your chain of command. The next step is asking you what track you’d like to pursue: entrepreneurial, career transition or skill-building. If you want to take a year, two years or less the app finds and formats your calendar to make sure your training is covered.” All of the classes and services are accessible via the app or website with Program Managers available to handle the courses and support to meet every servicemember, veteran or family member’s needs.
There is a chat function as well, so that, whether active duty, a veteran or a family member, the user feels supported 100 percent through the transition.
The two-year program through the app includes training to help veterans be competitive with their civilian counterparts, and the organization is communicating with the DOD and VA as well as Fortune 500 companies to create an internship. “As you’re doing your first of the two years, we’re also searching for the right corporate partner for you to work with and intern with, and so the focus is your last 180 days,” shared Sturdivant. “You’re certified and trained; you’ve already done all your VA stuff, and now you can just focus on being in partnership in the internship with the potential company that’s going to hire you.”
The program seeks to fill the gaps that are currently in the system by filling the gaps that appear when a servicemember seeks to retire as the VA will not work with active-duty members just as the DOD will not work with veterans in need of assistance. “By law, they can’t. You’re either in the military, or you’re not,” said Sturdivant. “I can’t reach out to the VA and ask them anything about retirement, and they can’t talk to me about it. But as a nonprofit [we] can talk to whomever [we] want.”
So, in the words of the VetsWhatsNext founder, “It is time that our veterans regain the hope and trust they have lost in the transition process. VWN is here to provide our veterans a product, services and resources that will reduce the number of suicides of our veterans each day. We are all things veterans; there is Life. After. Military.”