BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

Successfully transitioning veterans back home

Posted by egehl on February 22, 2012

Last week my organization, Habitat for Humanity International, held our annual policy conference in Washington, DC.  Among the many talented speakers who gave a keynote address, one in particular stood out from the crowd.  Colonel David Sutherland, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Department of Defense, spoke to the Habitat audience about the importance of supporting veterans when they return home.  

Colonel Sutherland’s principal focus as a Special Assistant to the Chairman is on Warrior and Family Support.  In this role, he leads the efforts to improve the quality of life and work for returning warriors, their families, and the families of the fallen.  He advises and assists the Chairman by advocating for warriors and their families, and promoting successful family programs across a variety of services.

Colonel Sutherland has had an amazing career.  He served in the military for 28 years and in 2008 and 2009 was regional division chief in the J5 Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate, making him responsible for strategic planning and advising the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on issues relating to the Middle East.

I’ve listened to a lot of speeches in my time, but have to say that Colonel Sutherland’s was by far one of the most moving and powerful ones I’ve heard.  I was immediately struck by how passionate he is about supporting the men and women who serve this country, and their successful transition back home.

The main themes of his speech included that community leadership is key to the success of reintegrating and transitioning veterans, families, and families of our fallen; that community leaders are needed to connect with those who have served and to look for a way to assist those veterans who are returning; and returning veterans are great young people who will contribute to the community in the future.  They just need a little help with the transition to get them started.  

Over his years of service, Colonel Sutherland has met and encountered many strong, dedicated, and faithful young people who have had their lives changed because of joining the military.  He understands the mental and physical impact of war, and the potential that members of the military have to work through all of those obstacles through sheer determination, solid character, and a strong desire to continue giving back to people.  During his speech he gave specific examples of service members who have showed the large impact they can have on their communities if their talents are fully utilized and appreciated regardless of any setbacks they’ve encountered.

According to Sutherland, 40 percent of soldiers returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom have been diagnosed with a mental health issue, and returning military suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression are significantly more likely than their civilian counterparts to struggle with addiction, become homeless or commit suicide.  Therefore it’s vital that veterans not only get the mental health support they need, but also be given professional and personal opportunities to allow them to feel like an integral part of society.

Another important theme of his speech was how organizations and community resources can better aid returning military and veterans’ transition to civilian life.  Government can’t do it all so independent groups play a key role in helping veterans such as through mentorship programs and direct leadership involvement.

Colonel Sutherland believes that the key ways to support members of the military is increasing public awareness of their special needs, building community support, and promoting community services.  In addition he wants to make sure that the many community services that exist out there know about each other and aren’t operating in silos so that they can build on each other’s strengths.  As a result, this will improve the nation’s support network for returning military because the more that organizations and agencies can work together the better off the veteran community will be from this strong, diverse network.

One of the ways that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is promoting collaboration among services for veterans is through a project called the “Sea of Goodwill”.  The goal of the Sea of Goodwill is to link public, private, and governmental support for military, veterans and their families, through a common understanding of what is required to ensure a sustainable life in civilian society.  This includes education, secure employment, and quality health care, as the foundation upon which the Sea of Goodwill can build.

Because of the values and lessons service members learn during their time in the military, they stand out and can contribute in wonderful ways to our most pressing community problems.  All of us have a responsibility to make sure that happens, and what better way than by promoting and joining BPW Foundation’s Joining Forces for Women Veterans and Military Spouses Mentoring Plus® It’s a great chance to get involved and connect with a service member in your community.  Sign up today!


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