Veteran volunteer advocates troop support
River Falls resident and 21-year military veteran Bret VanBlaircom visited the April 23 City Council meeting to offer thanks to the city for signing a statement of support for troops and give information about his new role in the community. People may see him around town, paying visits to businesses and other types of employers.
He introduced himself as the volunteer outreach coordinator for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program (ESGR) who covers District 7, which includes all of Pierce and St. Croix counties and other western Wisconsin territory.
VanBlaircom said he serves as an outreach person for both the troops and communities from which they come. He characterizes his role as one of education and awareness.
"I'm basically the outreach coordinator who talks to employers about the USERRA law," he said at the meeting.
The Department of Labor defines the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act as "intended to minimize the disadvantages to an individual that occur when the person needs to be absent from his or her civilian employment to serve in this country's uniformed services..." DOL says the law aims to protect service members' rights and benefits through clarification of the law; minimize any disadvantages occurring from military service; reduce disruptions to the lives of service members, employers, coworkers and the community; and to avoid discrimination against service persons.
ESGR coordinator VanBlaircom said Friday he's been on the job for about four months. He volunteered for the open position after attending a military party with his daughter, who joined the Army National Guard.
He watched a presentation on the ESGR then approached the presenter to say: "How can I get involved in this?"
VanBlaircom will visit local businesses and introduce the Statement of Support for the Guard and Reserve, which recognizes the importance of the Guard and Reserve to national security. The statement pledges an employer's support of troops and the USERRA law, as well as ongoing support to service members and their families.
VanBlaircom says there is often a "disconnect" associated with the law, which the military answers with the ESGR program. The coordinator says his job includes awareness and outreach both for service members and the entities and businesses in their communities.
He said, "Being available for questions is important. Being a resource for people is important."
VanBlaircom owns and operates a local construction company and said he sets aside time at least once a month to offer information about the USERRA law and the ESGR's statement of support. Working with troops, he might show them the possibilities of Hero to Hire, a part of the Yellow Ribbon Re-Integration program.
Among the help is a website where vets can post their skills and employers can look for them. The site also helps veterans translate their military experience and match it to a civilian line of work.
VanBlaircom emphasizes how important jobs are to the troops rejoining society, a need that will increase as more vets return home seeking opportunity.
The coordinator cites the St. Croix County Sheriff's office for its exemplary support. One of the department's employees nominated it for an ESGR Freedom Award because of its efforts to accommodate service members and their needs.
VanBlaircom said he emphasizes going "above and beyond" to support the troops and encourages veterans to nominate for an award the employers who do.
As the coordinator talks to different businesses in town, he encourages them to sign a Statement of Support, which is free. They receive a Support Our Troops poster to display, as well as a signed certificate they can frame.
He said the response from businesses so far has been good -- many besides the city have signed a statement.
As an advocate, adds VanBlaircom, "One of the biggest things I've seen is checking in on the family (while a loved one is deployed) and just being there."
VanBlaircom said he also stays in touch with the local Family Support Group, helping those within the group as well as those outside it to understand its role. He said he tries to go quarterly and drop in on the local troops' drill activities, just to keep up with what's happening and be available to them.
People running local businesses may see him around -- generally making an effort to strengthen support of the troops in western Wisconsin and offer more information to anyone who'd like to help.
He welcomes any employers who are interested to sign a statement of support, to call or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-283-5604.
Learn more about the ESGR program at its website: www.esgr.mil.