Representatives from Montgomery County gathered in Eagleville, on June 16th, and shared their thoughts on the Veterans Response Team’s (VRT) progress after 18 months of training first responders to connect Veterans in crisis with the resources they need.
The Veterans Response Team (VRT) is a network of people who serve Montgomery County and work to connect Veterans with the programs and services available to them. The VRT initiative has had success in other communities and training began in Montgomery County under the guidance of Coatesville VAMC Veteran Justice Outreach Social Worker, Rhonda Sanford in February 2022.
What do Montgomery County representatives who are familiar with the VRT initiative think about the program 18 months after their first training session?
Defining a successful interaction
At the most basic level, VRT describes a successful interaction as connecting a Veteran in crisis, who is open to accepting the resources available to them, in a way that reduces the stress and tension of the situation that prompted a first responder to get involved in the first place.
Anna Trout is the Crisis and Diversion Director for the Montgomery County Office of Mental Health and oversees crisis programing for the public mental health system. She is a community partner with the VRT and a VRT member.
Data that shows the impact
Trained VRT members have responded to 70 officially tracked incidents since the first training was held in January 2022.
Approximately 65% of the encounters are successful, meaning that the Veteran is receptive to receiving support and care, they qualify for the things that VRT thinks would be helpful to the Veteran and it goes relatively smoothly.
Another measure of success for any team is having a roster of volunteers deep enough to provide coverage every time a call is received.
Montgomery County Veterans Response Team currently has 66 members, who are Veterans themselves, and currently serve the community as police officers, sheriffs, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and social workers.
"So far, VRT has been able to connect with every Veteran in a timely manner due to the collaboration with the Montgomery County Mobile Crisis Support and other county agencies," says Sanford.
Who are the Veterans you're helping?
The Veterans that first responders commonly encounter face homelessness or are dealing with substance abuse, relationship problems, or mental health challenges like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or dementia and often require more intervention than a single interaction.
VRT members look to connect with the Veteran who may be facing homelessness, chronic illness, mental health problems and more before the Veteran commits an offense forcing the court to get involved.
A network for support
VRT members are taught to listen to the Veteran and gather information. First responders aren't alone out there. They rely on the network of VRT members to identify the resources available to the Veteran and, if possible, minimize involvement with the judicial system.
Should a Veteran be facing criminal charges, VA's Veteran Justice Outreach coordinators and County justice representatives offer assistance in navigating the justice system and VA services and benefits.
Common resources that VRT members refer Veterans for include crisis intervention, housing, counseling support and health care to include hospitalization. If successful, their intervention leads a Veteran out of their crisis state by directing them toward those resources.
"It is very hard to measure what didn't happen," explains Trout when talking about the intangible impact of their work. "Just the fact [a Veteran] now understands that there are other people out there who want good things for them and are willing to fight for them," she says maybe enough to encourage them to take steps they haven't before.
In a moment of crisis
One law enforcement officer who believes in VRT and is fighting to help his fellow Veterans is Detective Brendan Dougherty from the Upper Merion Township Police Department. He describes the bond formed from his first VRT encounter in early 2022.
"It's not like I'm a guy who helps them out for a day and they never hear from me again. It was my personal choice. I gave him my contact information so that he could always call on me if he needed to talk. I kept in touch the best I could."
The Veteran that Dougherty is talking about was scheduled to be at the training site and talk to this newest batch of VRT trainees but, that day, the Veteran was struggling.
"We learned that up at Coatesville VA they see the same people over and over again. That treatment doesn't always take the first time, so that's why we're talking with him today."
While training continues for the new recruits, Sanford gets to work by making calls, talking to the Veteran who was struggling and coordinating the support he needs in that moment.
Trout points out that if it wasn't for VRT, this Veteran would be going through this alone right now. Instead, Trout says, "he has a network of people who are calling to check on him. Who know his story. Who want to help him. Who believe in him." Knowing that gives her hope for this Veteran.
Benefits to the broader community
Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, who represents Pennsylvania's 4th District, shares an interest in the impact the Veterans Response Team is having in Montgomery County and visited with VRT members and trainees in Eagleville.
"I'm just in awe of this kind of a program. Just reaching out, especially Veteran to Veteran, can maybe bridge that moment of absolute despair and save a life. Anytime we think outside the box and treat a crisis like this differently and effectively, we have to lift those programs and multiply them."
Connecting Veterans to the resources set aside specifically for Veterans will benefit the entire community by freeing up local resources for others in the community.
Dean wants to connect Montgomery County and any county in Pennsylvania interested in launching their own VRT with federal grant funds already available through five major bills that have passed as a way to support police departments who embrace the Veteran Response Team's mission.
Learn more about the Montgomery County Veterans Response team by calling Coatesville VAMC Veteran Justice Outreach Social Worker, Rhonda Sanford, at 484-667-1988 or email email@example.com.