Colonel David Sutherland is the co-founder and Chairman of the Center for Military and Veterans Community Services (Dixon Center) at Easter Seals. He is a husband and father, and an advocate for our service members, military veterans, their families and the families of our fallen.

Through Dixon Center at Easter Seals, he is visiting hundreds of communities, assisting thousands of organizations and creating a nationwide network of support using grassroots solutions for veterans and their families.

How did you personally feel when you returned home? How was that transition for you?

I came home from Iraq to a much different situation and realized how fantastic my family was and how they did great without me there, but I felt like I didn’t fit in. My wife – who is wonderful and who talked through and listened to me – realized that when I came home I wasn’t feeling connected. I was hypersensitive, I was on edge and I didn’t feel connected to anyone. It took about two years before I started feeling connected again. What helped me was people listening, not judging, not assuming I had a mental illness, but listening to me – listening to my stories, listening to my emotions, listening to me brag about our servicemembers’ accomplishments and how phenomenal they were. I came home with a great deal of guilt and I looked to my family and my neighbors and community for a place to connect.

HELPING OUT: Colonel David Sutherland urges the public to offer our veterans the opportunities they need to rejoin and contribute to their communities. Photos: Kim Mitchell

 

The support from your family must have been critical. Was there anything else that helped you make that transition?

I think the other piece was my employment, my job. I worked as a direct report to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and General Marty Dempsey and, in that capacity – in my job working for them – I felt satisfaction. I felt like I was making a difference by being an advocate and a mentor for 2.3 million men and women in uniform – by going out and aligning the myriad of support services for them in local communities and having their support.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle veterans face when transitioning home?

There is a disconnect for veterans when they come home. The American people know we are veterans, but they don’t know us. They may not know us as individuals. If you know a veteran or a military family, then you have met a veteran or a military family – but each one is unique, so every need and opportunity for a veteran and returning servicemember and military family has to be looked at on a continuum. And, you can’t talk about veterans without talking about their families.

If every need and opportunity has to be looked at on a continuum, then every need and opportunity has to be looked at with a holistic approach that includes education, meaningful employment and access to healthcare.

Education enables them to achieve their goals – their graduation goals – and it makes them feel connected to an institution, to feel that they fit in. It’s also important to recognize that we, as veterans, may learn differently. After two years in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, you learn through doing – a practical application to learning, as opposed to sitting in a classroom and taking notes in lectures.

Meaningful employment means jobs that pay a living wage where they can take care of their families.

Access to healthcare includes access to information and options. For example, what opportunities are there in the community to participate – through athletics and recreation, peer-to-peer support, mentorship or prodigy programs? When you look at health in a holistic manner, it leads to a better quality of life.

Our veterans are not victims.  They just need a little assistance from their communities during their transition and reintegration and they are going to soar. What they are going to do for civil society in the next 30 years is going to be unbelievable.

Why are communities so important in welcoming our veterans home?

Here’s the way I look at it: the paradigm right now is that veterans and servicemembers come home to a grateful nation. Although that’s true, the reality is that we come home to our family members, our neighbors and our communities. That’s where the greatest impact for enabling them during transition and reintegration can take place – at the local level.

STARS & STRIPES: Sutherland shares, “When we forget about the wars, let’s not forget about our veterans.”

 

Many people believe that the DOD (United States Department of Defense) and VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) solve all problems when it comes to veterans, but there are just some things that government can’t do that independent organizations working together locally can.

This can’t be coordinated out of Washington, D.C. It’s a whole-of-society approach. It’s the social sector, the private sector and the public sector. Plus there are volunteers and like-minded individuals who come together and create a collective impact. We strengthen communities by creating these collective impacts. We align this support and work with organizations that help to find and focus on our veterans at the community level. This is where we can make the greatest impact for our military servicemembers, veterans, their families and families of the fallen.

Do you think any major changes will be made in the next few years as these organizations and communities help our veterans?

By the end of 2014, we’ll have more than 1 million new veterans as the war in Afghanistan ends, and with the war in Iraq ended. The American people will start to forget about these wars, but what we cannot allow them to do is forget about the veterans, military families and the families of the fallen. If we align our services and supports locally, we’ll be able to offer our veterans the opportunities they need to rejoin and contribute to their communities. When we forget about the wars, let’s never forget about our veterans.

Do you think there is a particular area that we are lacking the most—whether it’s education, healthcare, employment?

Right now I don’t worry about it as much as I worry about it a year or two years from now. The public will start to focus on other things. There is a desire to want to help. That donor enthusiasm must continue. We have to create more opportunities for organizations to be inclusive.

Right now, there are nearly 2 million veterans living at or below the poverty line. We need to ask the religious, civic and social sector organizations that do address poverty to reach out to our veterans. If the nearly 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. include veterans and military families in their outreach, we will sustain this support and service long-term.

It really comes down to the delivery of services and delivery of veterans to services. An example of this model is how the Easter Seals organization works. They have transitioned, transformed and really kept pace with this demand.