VA program helps veterans re-enter workforce

08/08/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:18 AM

Navy veteran Darren Sanstra next month will mark his first year at Industrial Metal Fabrication.

It’s an important milestone for the father of two children who planned to make a career in the Navy, but whose plans were cut short after Sanstra “shredded my ACL,” or anterior cruciate ligament, in Iraq in the early 1990s and suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Without this job, I’m not sure where I’d be,” he said Tuesday. “I’d be lost, big time … I think I would probably fall into depressive mode.”

Sanstra is the beneficiary of a Veterans Affairs program begun at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita six years ago called Compensated Work Therapy.

It’s a program whose goal is to assist veterans who want to re-enter the civilian workforce but who find it difficult because of mental illness or other barriers, including homelessness, said program coordinator Robin Madson.

And it’s Madson’s goal to help more veterans, who she said are often overlooked.

“I think the population I work with, they are definitely underserved,” Madson said.

Madson established the CWT program for the Wichita VA in January 2007.

There are several components within CWT, including subprograms aimed specifically at helping homeless veterans — added in 2011 — and those with mental illness.

Those veterans are supported by CWT specialists who provide counsel and assistance throughout the process, including identifying barriers to long-term, permanent employment and coordinating with their medical or mental health treatment.

Some veterans are enrolled in the Transitional Work Experience program, a six-month-long program aimed at preparing veterans for re-entering the job market by working for a contracted employer or for the VA itself. The aim of that program is to help the veteran develop job skills, good work habits, job references and work history — a sort of primer to finding permanent, full-time employment.

Les Eck, owner of Rusty Eck Ford, said his east-side car dealership has been involved in the CWT and TWE programs for a long time.

“It’s just a good thing to do, to help out the vets that need help,” Eck said.

Gregory Dawson, a Vietnam-era veteran who has worked part time in the service department at Rusty Eck Ford for four years, said the job came just in time for him. VA officials helped him get the job just as his unemployment benefits ran out.

Sanstra, who oversees shipping and receiving and building maintenance at IMF, found his job through a CWT that helps veterans find and obtain permanent jobs that they find rewarding.

Having a VA employment specialist advocate for him was important, he said, because he thinks having a PTSD diagnosis “kind of scares (employers) away.”

Today, he said he couldn’t ask for a better employment situation.

“I’m very, very happy here,” said Sanstra. IMF owners and executives “Carl, Renee, Jimmy and Jennifer (Dalrymple), they’ve helped me out in many different ways.”

Madson said CWT and the subprograms assist more than 200 veterans in the area. She said she expects to be able to support more because the program has approval to add a fourth employment specialist.

Right now, the program assists veterans only in the Wichita area, though Madson hopes to expand it statewide.

She’s also hoping to attract more employers to the program. Right now, she said, about 12 companies and organizations are participating. She said tax credits are available for employing veterans.

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