Earlier this month, I joined San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to launch Veterans 311, an innovative, one-stop portal that combines existing resources for veterans from the VA, federal, state, local, and nonprofit programs like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It is an amazing initiative that will benefit thousands. You can learn more about it here.
Through a contact at the mayor’s office, I was then invited to visit the San Francisco county jail located in San Bruno to learn about a new program bringing resources together for a select group of veterans.
The program is called Community of Veterans Engaged in Restoration, “The COVER Project,” and was established to provide incarcerated veterans with “in-jail and post-release educational, vocational, legal and therapeutic services” – ultimately to help them reintegrate back into society once their time has been served, and keep them from returning to jail. It’s a really fascinating model, and one that was new to me.
COVER is based off of an already successful reintegration program; Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, dubbed “RSVP.” Evaluation results from RSVP demonstrate a 40% decrease in re-arrests for violent crimes during the first post-release year among participants who spend 2 months in RSVP. If four months are spent in the program, there is an 80% decrease in re-arrests. These are pretty remarkable results, and their hopes are that COVER is just as successful.
I arrived at the San Bruno jail on a sunny San Francisco afternoon, only to make my way through a maze of security doors and a gauntlet of uniformed officers, ultimately arriving at a cellblock full of incarcerated veterans. When I entered, sitting in a circle were 64 inmates, all wearing bright orange jumpsuits.
And here I was sticking out like a sore thumb in a suit. I was caught off guard, to say the least.
But, like a true Marine, I didn’t skip a beat and pulled up a chair to join their circle. We made our way around the circle for introductions, while stating what branch of service we had been in.
“Gunnery Sergeant! United States Marine Corps! Vietnam!”
“Specialist! United States Army! Desert Storm!”
Most were veterans of past generations, but there also were two young men who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, sitting quietly within our circle.
After the introductions, I took a moment to speak to the group. I discussed my service and then emphasized that what supported me throughout my deployments and transitions home was the sense of community I felt with fellow veterans. I needed others who had “been there and done that” to pick me up and guide me. But for me, the hardest part of reconnecting with other vets is actually finding them.
Fortunately, these veterans had a community already available. I challenged them to use this community, a dedicated volunteer staff and the resources they provided to make this project work – to become productive members of society once released.
COVER incorporates victim restoration, offender accountability and community involvement to address many of the underlying issues that lead to incarceration for veterans, including domestic violence, substance abuse, PTSD, unemployment and homelessness – some or all of which many veterans face during their transition from combat to civilian life.
Another component of the project I was impressed with was that the administrators confirmed each participant’s service through official military paperwork. This is the same model IAVA uses in our Community of Veterans social network. We’ve always said, “no one can talk to a veteran like another veteran.” I can’t talk to my mother about certain issues I may be facing, and I may not be able to talk to my closest civilian friends. But I can always talk to someone in uniform, because they know what I’ve been through. It gives me a sense of comfort. That is why verifying military service before letting them in is crucial to create and environment for healthy dialogue – they know everyone in that room shares similar experiences. It’s worked for our membership, and it’s definitely working for the veterans in the COVER project.
COVER is still in its infancy – it was launched only a few months ago by a motivated group of volunteers, limited funding and a few sheriffs’ deputies with a lot of heart. But much like Veteran’s Jail Diversion Programs, if successful, it can become a model that is replicated in jails throughout the country.
As I walked out of the jail I thought about why my challenge to them seemed to resonate so much. Then I realized that I just gave them something that had been lacking since they had left the military. I had given them a new mission – one that they can accomplish, but only if they stick together.
I have high hopes for the COVER project, but these veterans must show that it works.
Todd Bowers is the Deputy Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the first and largest organization for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. IAVA’s mission is to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and their families. Bowers joined IAVA in 2007 as Director of Government Affairs, after two tours in Iraq. During his second deployment, he was wounded when a sniper bullet hit the scope of his rifle and exploded in his face, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. In 2009 Bowers deployed to Afghanistan as a civil affairs team chief.