Connecting Veterans to Opportunities in Agriculture

With the number of U.S. farms declining and the average age of American farmers now at 58 years, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been seeking ways to attract a new generation to the land.

Recognizing an opportunity to tackle this problem and simultaneously serve the country’s veterans, Al Muñoz created the Returning Veterans to Agriculture Project, a website to help those who have served in the military find the resources and information they need to return to farms in rural communities or to start careers in agriculture.

“We have a large number of young people who are coming back from service and no one is encouraging them to go back to work on the family farm. So I started developing a transition guide and then built the website,” said Muñoz, a project manager in USDA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Launched in December 2013, the website includes information on USDA grant and loan programs, real-time agricultural job announcements from USAJOBS.gov and from the private sector, and plug-ins from LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. There also is information on starting small farms, on educational and training opportunities and details from the 2014 farm bill that created special incentives for veterans seeking to work in agriculture.

From its initial launch, the site, www.RV2A.org, has attracted more than 6,000 veterans, and now averages about 750 unique visitors per month. In addition, visitors return an average of three to five times to find more information.

Muñoz was so passionate about this cause that he developed the website on his own time and at no cost to USDA, using an existing web platform and gaining buy-in from USDA leadership to ensure successful implementation. While Muñoz served in the military, he said it was his daughter, an Iraq war veteran, who inspired him to develop this tool.

“My daughter came back from Iraq a couple of years ago and she struggled after leaving the military,” said Muñoz. “That was what I was thinking of—giving these vets a chance to find themselves. They can do that if we can just give them the resources to make the connections.”

Muñoz said the site fills a void by serving as a centralized “one-stop shop” for veterans to gather farming-related information from a variety of USDA agencies and programs, and from the private, nonprofit and education sectors.

Joyce Hunter, deputy chief information officer for policy and planning at USDA, said Muñoz is “very resourceful and pro-active in addressing problems.” She said he came up with the idea to create a centralized website to provide resources to veterans and then made it happen.

“If he sees a challenge, he always comes up with solutions and sees challenges as opportunities to help,” said Hunter. “He is able to bring coalitions of the willing together to work toward goals that not only benefit individuals programs and agencies, but the department as a whole.”

Becky Wright-Brizee of the nonprofit SourceAmerica, who has worked with Muñoz, said he had the vision and the foresight to be a change agent.

“He is able to create the collaborative environments where success is made possible,” said Wright-Brozee.

Muñoz said most of the visitors to the website have been looking for grants and loans to start their own farms, which is exactly what USDA is trying to encourage. He also said many others are using the site to search for educational opportunities in farming, ranching, fishing and forestry.

“We weren’t reaching veterans before and now they are showing significant interest,” said Muñoz.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.

Heads Up For Vets

Heads Up For Veterans

This week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, promised the Senate would vote on S. 932, the “ Putting Veterans Funding First Act ” when Congress returns to Capitol Hill after the election. This legislation will provide Advanced Appropriations for all Department of Veterans Affairs discretionary budget accounts. Advanced Appropriations has been a top priority for the VFW, and this puts us one step closer to achieving our goal. The House version of this bill advanced through the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and is awaiting a final vote. VFW’s Action Corps has been instrumental in getting legislation advanced in the past, and we will need your help again. Once we know when the Senate vote will take place, we will be calling on our membership to take action.

2. Election Tuesday: Tuesday, November 4, is Election Day. This election will impact veterans, service members and their families. The candidates who win on Tuesday will be thrust into debates and votes on issues ranging from adequately funding VA health care and what the future retirement benefits for military retirees will look like to whether or not the Department of Defense will suffer devastating cuts because of sequestration. Know where your candidates stand on our issues and make time to vote on Tuesday. Your vote counts!

3. Call for Personal Stories on Forced Arbitration: When our service members deploy, their focus should be on protecting our nation, not on predatory schemes, scams, abuses and frauds causing financial difficulties at home. However, their financial security has been jeopardized by an injustice buried in the fine print of their loan applications, rental agreements, credit card statements and other financial contracts. It’s called forced arbitration.

Often when service members, military families and veterans try to correct a problem with their finances through the legal system, they are required to go into arbitration. Forced arbitration prevents service members from using America’s court system to defend their USERRA and SCRA rights, and instead funnels them into a one-sided arbitration system rigged by the corporations that violated the law.

If you or someone you know has been required to go into arbitration over a commercial dispute, we want to hear your story. These cases will be used as evidence to strengthen the financial security of our troops and protect their rights. To share your story with us, please contact Brendon Gehrke at bgehrke@vfw.org .  

4. VA Launces New Affordable Care Act Web Page: This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs updated its website with a new page containing information on the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The page is easy to navigate, and is broken down into different links for veterans already enrolled in VA care, unenrolled veterans, and family members.  Those who are not enrolled yet can use the site to learn more about eligibility, begin the enrollment process, or initiate an online chat for more help.  There are also various fact sheets and FAQs available. 

As a reminder, all enrolled veterans, TRICARE beneficiaries, and CHAMPVA family members already meet the minimum standard for coverage required by the ACA.  To visit the website, click here: http://www.va.gov/health/aca/.

Carter Says Deal Plays Politics with National Guard

Democrat Jason Carter opened a new front in his campaign for governor, contending that Gov. Nathan Deal has “politicized” Georgia’s National Guard and imperiled its ability to stave off base closures in the next round of Pentagon cuts. “We have a governor who put politics first instead of placing people in positions where they should be,” said Carter. “Economically it’s a serious issue for us and in terms of respect for the National Guard it’s a serious issue. And when we have to go and fight for our military families … we need to be sure we’re sending the best possible people forward.”

Carter was referring to Deal’s 2011 appointment of then-Republican state Sen. Jim Butterworth, a former captain in the Air Guard, as leader of the state unit. The promotion raised plenty of eyebrows in military quarters, and several former Guard members criticized the move. Deal’s aides pointed to a 2013 award by the Pentagon that named the Guard the overall winner of the Army Communities of Excellence competition. “This is another example of how Jason Carter prefers rhetoric over records,” said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson. “Our National Guard was named best in the nation by the Pentagon. Judge Gov. Deal’s appointments by their performance.”

Carter’s attack stuck to a broader theme of accusing Deal of turning state agencies into a political arm of his office. He earlier pledged to “professionalize” Georgia’s economic development office and lead a nationwide search for its next leader. Carter was flanked by former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland and David Poythress, a former adjutant general of Georgia’s Guard who was also a two-time Democratic candidate for governor.

Poythress called Deal’s military appointments a “laughingstock” and said they prove he doesn’t take the military seriously. “These people, the governor’s appointees, are not federally recognized generals. When they go to the Pentagon, they have to wear a coat and tie,” Poythress said, adding: “They don’t belong there and everyone knows they don’t belong there.”

The event, held at the Marietta Museum of History’s Air Wing, was aimed at appealing to veterans and their families in the final push before the November election. Carter is not a military veteran, but he and his surrogates noted that his father Jack and both his grandparents served.

Deal’s aides scoffed at the attack and pointed to the governor’s military record. Deal rose to the ranks of captain in the U.S. Army before leaving the military to start his law practice.  “We have a governor who has served his nation in uniform in a time of war,” said Robinson. “He’s not going to take a lecture from someone with absolutely zero military experience. Jason Carter should be ashamed of himself.”

VA Enrollees Get Free Vaccinations at Walgreens

This week, VA announced that enrolled veterans may begin receiving flu shots and other vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at Walgreens retail pharmacies nationwide. The program, based on a successful pilot program in Florida, will help expand veterans’ access to vaccines just in time for flu season. The vaccines are subject to availability, and the program’s funding will allow Walgreens to administer approximately 75,000 flu shots this year. Under the agreement, Walgreens will provide the vaccinations at no charge, and will electronically add them to the veteran’s VA health record. The vaccines are available daily during normal Walgreens pharmacy hours with no appointment necessary. Veterans may still receive their vaccinations from VA facilities if they choose. For more information about the program, click here: http://www.ehealth.va.gov/Immunization.asp .