“You wouldn’t have been able to tell by looking at him at the father-daughter dances, but he was a wounded hero from the Vietnam War,” said Samantha Warshauer Heffner ’98 of her Spence classmate’s dad. “He had lost his foot after stepping on a landmine, and growing up I was always very cognizant of all the struggles he had dealing with his prosthetic device. It stuck with me and it bothered me.” And so began Heffner’s interest in service and activism.
Heffner, who works as a special projects manager for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), presented to faculty, alumnae and students for the School’s annual Spence Perspectives lecture series. In conjunction with the theme of service and activism, Heffner spoke about the tireless and passionate work of empowering and supporting America’s post-9/11 veterans.
After working for a number of years at a corporate law firm, Heffner’s professional work with veterans began with pro-bono work helping to appeal their disability ratings from the Veterans Affairs office.
“When you leave the service, the VA assigns you a percentage point that encapsulates their clinical estimation, for better or worse, of what your disability is. That includes both tangible and intangible wounds and illnesses stemming from your service,” Heffner explained. “Those numbers are unsurprisingly very frequently wrong, so as I became more involved in the program, I was really struck by how vast the problem was and the amount of work needed. It’s not so easy to move from a corporate law job to the nonprofit space, but I’m here [at IAVA] five and a half years later and very happy about it.”
According to Heffner, one of the most interesting aspects of working for the IAVA is that it covers multiple disciplines. Not only do returning veterans need assistance with education and the GI Bill, they also need help with finding employment, mental health treatment and a community.
“It’s harder than it needs to be or should be. So it’s great that there are organizations such as IAVA out there,” she said. In fact, Heffner noted that there around nearly 40,000 Veteran Service Officers available to help veterans. For IAVA, instead of VSO’s, the company refers to itself as a VEO (Veteran Empowerment Organization) to echo its credo that giving money and supporting veterans is an investment as opposed to a charity.
The IAVA is focused on helping veterans with employment by not just finding them jobs, but also helping them figure out a long-term career path.
“Jobs and careers are very different,” said Heffner. “Finding a job outside of the service might be one thing, but finding a career and figuring out which jobs you need to get to fulfill your career and to get to the next step and to really accomplish your dreams is hard. We work with companies who are dedicated to employing veterans, teaching them about best practices and how skills transfer over.” The IAVA works to provide veterans with mentors, job workshops with resume writing tips and mock interviews and more to teach them other various “soft skills” that aren’t always intuitive.
One of the most contentious things that veterans need help with is with education and receiving the benefits they are entitled to through the GI Bill. To date, the IAVA has helped more than 960,000 veterans to understand how to access their benefits through its online digital calculator.
“Through the GI Bill, if you serve our country in one of the branches, your formal education should be paid for—the U.S. government takes care of it,” Heffner explained. “The longer you’re in, the more you accumulate. This sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s very complicated. The bureaucracy is staggering, and it’s very confusing and hard to figure out. Through our online digital calculator, we’ve been able to track that over 960,000 people have used it to figure out how much money they’ve earned through their service.”
The IAVA also has a tenacious lobbying arm in D.C. that serves as a watchdog to make sure that the monies remain intact.
“We’ve been able to count that over the years that the IAVA has been around, we have solidified over $3 billion of GI cuts that were threatened by lawmakers, and we were able to lobby online and offline to maintain them,” she said.
One of IAVA’s signature programs is known as the RRRP, or the Rapid Response Referral Program. Launched in 2012, more than 6,000 veterans have received personalized support from social workers.
For Heffner, one of the most impactful experiences she has experienced with the IAVA came in 2014 and 2015 during the company’s annual initiative called Storm the Hill. Each year, its members speak with lawmakers to discuss problems and solutions. In 2014, the initiative’s theme was: The Campaign to Combat Suicide.
“We had our members fly in and talk to lawmakers, and we ultimately helped draft a new piece of legislation to combat the problem, called the Clay Hunt SAV Act.”
Clay Hunt was a Marine who, after being wounded in Iraq, was ushered back into civilian life. According to Heffner, although he recovered physically, he was depressed and had trouble with his mental health, which ebbed and flowed like with many veterans.
“He was a real activist, and he embodied what is referred to as Mission Continues: he continued to serve throughout his civilian life. One of his friends was quoted by CBS saying, ‘Clay had the world at his fingertips,’” Heffner said. But after hitting a low point in 2010, Clay died by suicide in March of 2011.
From Clay’s tragedy, Heffner explained that new faces of activism were born. On February 12, 2015, President Obama signed into law H.R.203, the Clay Hunt SAV Act. “This is important, lifesaving legislation, as it increases accountability for the VA,” she noted. “It incentives the hiring of mental health professionals at the VA, and it also provides loan forgiveness for mental health professionals who go to school in the first place to become VA psychiatrists and help with the problem. And it also helps with funding for community-based outreach programs for local veterans.”
To bring it back to the Red Doors, Heffner recalled the speaker at her Spence graduation, journalist Anna Quindlen. On her first day at IAVA, the first thing she saw was a poster of Quindlen from 2008, and it said, “Because it’s right.”
“There was a quote accompanying the poster, and it still rings true today,” said Heffner. “She [Quindlen] wrote, ‘Offering these men and women a college education is the least we can do. It's not free; they've already paid, in Fallujah and Kabul. If Congress wants an economic-stimulus package, this is a great one.’”