In the Bexar County Military and Veterans Services Center’s first year, the facility has seen 6,000 people walk through its doors looking for career advice and veteran benefits assistance, Executive Director Karen Lopez Rolirad said.
“Some come in just asking, ‘Can you help me read through this piece of paper? I don’t know what this means,’” Rolirad said Friday. “We help veterans with big or small problems. It’s really about trying to find them the resources they need. It’s not just benefits and it’s not just employment. We’re going to find the right person to help them.”
The Bexar County Military and Veterans Services Center opened last year on Veterans Day. The first few months were dedicated to hiring staff, buying office furniture, and establishing standard operating procedures, Rolirad said. But the center became “mission capable” and fully operational in April, she added.
“At that point, we were able to really be successful with 108 [job] placements, placing 108 military and veterans,” Rolirad said. “And we place veterans as well. There are veterans that come in here looking for benefits and they need jobs, and we help them find jobs.”
The center has two main priorities: one, helping veterans understand what services are available to them and connecting them to those benefits and services; two, helping military members transition into civilian life. But there are no questions off of the table, Rolirad said.
“Our No. 1 goal is to serve the veteran,” Rolirad said.
Since the center opened last year, it has processed 1,342 claims totaling $2.7 million, Rolirad told county commissioners last Tuesday. The center also placed 108 military members and their spouses in civilian employment between April and November 2019, which means $4.3 million in economic impact to Bexar County, she said. The average yearly pay for those jobs was $60,183, she added.
Overall, the center put almost $7.1 million back into the Bexar County economy through assisting both veterans and transitioning military members, Rolirad said Tuesday.
Commissioner Kevin Wolff, a U.S. Navy veteran, praised Rolirad and her office for their first year’s accomplishments. Because it was only the center’s first year, he said, the staff was only starting to hit its stride – but he anticipated continued success.
“When these guys are running at full steam, they’ll be averaging about 20 placements a month. … Think about it from an economic development standpoint. What would we do from an incentive standpoint, if we had a company coming in that said they were going to bring in 240 new jobs, $60,000, each?” he said. “We’d be all over that.”
The services center is there not only to help veterans access their benefits, as the County is statutorily required to do, but also help connect veterans with other providers who offer help for things such as housing and health care, Wolff said. Veterans can access any service they need through the center, and an officer will act as a case manager to ensure they receive that service, Wolff added.
“There are over 200 nonprofit veteran services around the county,” Wolff said. “We didn’t want to create another place for housing, we wanted to better utilize resources that are already here.”
Steven Price, founder of nonprofit The VOICES of Our Veterans, commended Bexar County’s efforts in reaching out to military members and veterans. There are so many veterans who don’t know where to find services, and centralizing those services may be critical to getting them the help they need, he said. Price served eight years in the U.S. Army and continues to work with veterans through his nonprofit.
“It’s been a long time coming, and as a first-year startup pilot project, they’re doing an excellent job,” Price said. “But as Military City USA, I’m counting on the County and the State to support us [veterans] even more.”
The services center also educates veterans on benefits they are entitled to, Rolirad said.
“We help the elderly veterans that may not have been educated on what their death benefits [for funeral and burial expenses] are,” Rolirad said. “We do that on a daily basis. That is extremely important because the older generation – Korea and Vietnam vets – were not told or educated as well as today’s vets. It wasn’t explained to them what their benefits are.”
Price said he would advise Bexar County and San Antonio to advertise the existence of the services center more in the future, something that could make the difference between life and death. He cited the high suicide statistics in the veteran population; a 2016 Veterans Administration report found that, in 2014, 20 veterans died by suicide each day.
“A one-stop shop where everyone knows they can go is exactly what we’re looking for,” Price said.
“That center could be saving lives. … [Veterans] should be able to get referred, get mental health, get into school, get jobs. They should be able to get all that.”