VA program helps veterans start new career

CHARLESTON, SC – Getting struggling veterans back on their feet, that’s the goal of a unique program a the Ralph H. Johnson VA Hospital. The first step is to help veterans find jobs, and then keep them.

Thomas Gilliard says, “I had issues in my life that I’m not too proud of.”

Samuel Toomer says, “I kind of hit rock bottom.”

Both Thomas Gilliard and Samuel Toomer served in the Army, but then they left, battled substance abuse. Now, they are back on their feet.

Toomer says, “This gave me an opportunity to learn the skills, and I like it.”

The work for the VA through the Compensated Work Therapy Program, which helps vets translate the skills they learn in the military to civilian jobs.

Joan Dunn, Supervisor of Vocation Rehab, says, “Sometimes it’s just not knowing how to go out into the community and look for work. They’ve always been in the military and always know where the next step is. Sometimes it’s a big leap to go from a different world of the military to the civilian life.”

The program helps vets who are homeless, overcoming substance abuse, or coping with mental illness. Both Gilliard and Toomer work with the Sterile Processing Services, which makes sure all of the surgical tools are properly sterilized and prepped.

Rodney Hicks, RN and Chief of Sterile Processing Services, says, “That program provides an opportunity for the staff or the veterans to gain a skill set through a one year program and we offer them a certification at the end of it at that one year and potentially a job.”

The veterans tell News 2 this program gives them a second chance. They walk into the hospital with limited opportunities and walk out with a brand new career.

Gilliard says, “This is the country of second chances and they gave me a second chance and I’m really really happy and thankful for that.”

Last year, the Johnson VA Medical Center helped 280 veterans through the Compensated Work Therapy program. About half of those were homeless at the time they joined.

Dunn says, “Every day I see at least one or two veterans that I’ve worked with throughout the years that are permanent employees here. I just think it’s an opportunity for the Department of Veteran Affairs, and the VA Medical Center specifically to give back.”

The VA also has employment opportunities with the CWT program in housekeeping and food service, but the Sterile Processing Services path is the only training program that ends in a national certification.

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