Wounded warriors, disabled veterans receive employment assistance through VA’s vocational rehabilitation program

Photo of man in wheelchair greeting man standing in work environment

The VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program provides free assistance to Service members and veterans as they transition to the civilian workforce.

For many wounded, ill and injured Service members and disabled veterans, physical recovery is just the beginning of the home front battle. Faced with a “new normal” and a different set of circumstances, many Service members and veterans also struggle to find meaningful employment in the civilian sector once their military service is over.

Luckily, the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program (VR&E) is available to help.

“We take everybody where they’re at in the moment. It’s not a one-size fits all,” said Gerald Bacon, Assistant Director for Oversight and Outreach with VR&E. “We really are here to help them make the next steps.”

VR&E, also sometimes referred to as the Chapter 31 program, assists recovering Service members and veterans with service-connected disabilities to prepare for, find and keep suitable and meaningful employment. For veterans with service-connected disabilities so severe that they cannot immediately consider work, VR&E offers services to improve their ability to live as independently as possible.

“That can make a world of difference,” Gerald said of independent living services such as home modifications and assistive technology, all provided free of charge to eligible Service members and veterans. “You can’t really think about what kind of job you want if you can’t get into your house because you need a wheelchair ramp.”

For those Service members and veterans who are ready for and interested in employment, the first step of the process is to submit an application for VR&E services. After participating in an orientation that explains what the program has to offer, Service members and veterans meet one-on-one with a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (VRC) to complete a comprehensive rehabilitation evaluation to determine abilities, skills and interests. VRCs also help Service members and veterans articulate individualized employment goals and establish action steps to meet those goals, including identifying available jobs in their area of interest and understanding the ways a Service member or veteran’s disabling condition might impact their ability to perform the desired job.

According to Gerald, most Service members and veterans leave their first counseling meeting with a homework assignment to learn more about the employment fields they are most interested in, and best suited for.

“The more exploration you do upfront, the more positive the outcomes,” he said. “So it’s really a partnership between the counselor and that Service member or veteran. What we try to do is bring the information to bear to helps the client make an informed decision that’s best for them.”

This early engagement greatly increases a Service member or veteran’s chances for employment success, Gerald said, and when it comes to the value vocational rehabilitation he speaks from experience. Gerald joined the military as an infantryman with nothing more than a high school diploma and planned on making the military a career, but an injury forced him to leave the military in 1989. He “messed around” for eight years before stumbling onto the VR&E program through a County Veterans Service Office.

“I wish I had had this opportunity when I got out,” he said. “If I had had one-on-one counseling I might have actually listened and started the process a lot sooner.”

Based on the results of his evaluation, Gerald earned a college degree and then entered a helping profession, working as a VRC before assuming his current position. Like Gerald, many VR&E participants require additional training to achieve their employment goals, whether short-term training such as a certificate program to drive a truck, or more long-term education such as a college degree program. Whatever the type or length of training or education, VR&E covers all the costs, including tuition, books, fees and required equipment.

Other VR&E tracks include re-employment, where a Service member or veteran returns to a job they had previously, direct job placement and self-employment. Gerald said he hates it when he hears someone refer to these comprehensive services as the “best kept secret” in the government, and he hopes that every eligible Service member and veteran, regardless of their employment experience and employment goals, will take advantage of this program.

“There is just so much that can be done,” he said.

For more information about VR&E, including eligibility requirements and an in-depth description of the VR&E program, please visit http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/vre/.