|Sarah Nowitzke, Ann Arbor VA Medical Center OEF/OIF Manager|
“I know what it’s like.”
When Sarah Nowitzke says that to Veterans and their families, she means it.
She knows what it’s like to lose a loved one. What it’s like to wait years for wounds and feelings to heal.
Sarah’s job is to help soldiers coming home from combat navigate the system, to help them with paperwork, to explain their benefits and, many times, to just listen.
Her empathy is sincere and genuine, born of a heartbreak in her life that enables her to truly connect with today’s newest Veterans.
Her husband, Sergeant First Class Jim Nowitzke, an Army infantryman, died in 2001 in a VA Community Living Center. He had been in a coma for nearly three years following an accident in his Humvee in January 1999.
Knowing he would want her to get on with her life, Sarah headed for college. In 2004 she received her Master’s in Social Work from Wayne State University with a focus on Marriage and Family Systems.
Today, she is the manager of the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom program for the VA Ann Arbor, Mich., Healthcare System.
Coming from a military family she is comfortable working with Veterans. Her grandfather trained pilots in World War II, her father served in Vietnam, her brother in the Gulf War and her sister saw duty in Somalia.
Outstanding Employee Awards
Sarah’s remarkable resilience and positive attitude were just two of the reasons she received one of this year’s three “Outstanding VA Employee Awards” from the Disabled American Veterans at their 89th National Convention
Sarah began her career as a social worker with Ann Arbor VA and completed two internships prior to becoming a permanent employee within Social/Community-based Services. She is presently the Committee Chair for OEF/OIF Seamless Transition, the OEF/OIF Welcome Home Event Committee, and the Post-Deployment Integrated Care Initiative.
When she thinks of Jim today, she recalls that he was “a true soldier. He believed in what he did.”
During their time together, she lived on military bases in Germany, Georgia, and Mississippi and was an active member of the Military Family Support Group, providing assistance to family members of active duty soldiers.
|Sarah Nowitzke and Veteran Ira Brownridge at the November 6 University of Michigan football game where OEF/OIF Veterans were honored|
Her personal experiences have provided her an opportunity to empathize with the transition process that OEF/OIF combat veterans undergo, having assisted dozens of Veterans in understanding and taking advantage the many services available to them. Services, she is quick to add, that she and her family took advantage of, such as going through the military medical retirement process, staying at a Fisher House, becoming a VA fiduciary, working with a DAV service officer and VBA counselor to apply for a service connected disability, and many other VA benefits.
“Without the VA benefits awarded to my family, I wouldn’t be in the role I am in today. So, I have to get the message out there. My goal is to make sure that Veterans know that the VA is there for them and professional care is always accessible to them.”
Taking the Message to the Vets
She does this by participating in Welcome Home Events like the one in August, a “Car Show for Veterans,” hosted by Motor City Motor Club, Vietnam Veterans of America, and local unions. A Job and Education Fair was held at the Welcome Home Event where more than 80 vendors showcased VA services, community resources, employment and educational opportunities.
She was also there at the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) Muster held in partnership with the Department of Defense this summer. The IRR Muster allows soldiers completing their military contract under reserve status to have physical, mental health and dental exams through the military. VA staff members were on site to coordinate amenities needed for the DoD staff and service members.
Her OEF/OIF teammates and committee members say they are proud to work with Sarah on a daily basis, as she consistently creates a positive work environment and leads by example.
To which she counters, “I am only as good as the people I surround myself with, the relationships I nurture, and my mentors, colleagues and stakeholders. I was privileged to have great social workers, staff members, VSOs, and VBA staff guide me.
“It’s important to me to develop a program that affords OEF/OIF Vets the same opportunities that I had. I’m fortunate to work at a VA facility where leadership and team members are committed to providing excellent Veteran care.”
In her professional and personal life Sarah demonstrates a strong belief in giving back to the community by volunteerism. She has volunteered at the HIV-AIDS Resources Center, Sexual Assault Crisis Center, and Girl Scouts of America.