Alfonso Batres has spent nearly three decades working with the community-based Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Readjustment Counseling Vet Centers, starting in the field offices and heading the national program since 1994. The program, which provides counseling, family services, job assistance, medical and benefit referrals, has expanded from 200 to 300 centers in the last six years, and added 50 mobile units to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of combat veterans. Batres is the 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals Career Achievement medal recipient.
What is your approach to helping combat veterans and their families?
Vet Centers provide a safe confidential environment where combat veterans and their families can receive prompt professional services. Many of our Vet Center staff are veterans themselves and understand and appreciate the veteran’s service to country. We are the main access point for many veterans to overcome the barriers that stigma and bureaucracy can present. We also will travel to where the veterans are and provide outreach in or near their communities. We understand what the veterans have gone through and offer veteran centric care in a personal fashion in a cost effective fashion.
How do you continue to learn as a leader?
Staying in touch with the challenges that veterans and their families face is critical. Listening to what the veterans say is critical, so I learn from the veterans that I serve. I review the literature on research effecting veterans and have an adjunct appointment at the Medical School at Bethesda for the military. I am a strong believer in education and see that as a life long journey.
Is there one particular story about a veteran that has stayed with you?
When I worked at the regional office in Denver, I got a phone call on a Saturday morning from a police department about 90 miles away. They had an emergent case of a jailed veteran who was being combative and asking the police officers to shoot him. I got in a vehicle and drove up to the rural area and met with the police officer, who was a Vietnam vet. He filled me in on the case, walked in and met the veteran who was totally despondent because he had lost his wife and his house. I worked with him and to let him know that I was there to help him, as well as with the police officers who were doing their best to assist him. The officers allowed me to drive him back to Denver to admit him to the VA psychiatric facility where they could help him decompress and deal with the alcohol problems and the anger in a structured support setting.
The veteran was cold and shaking as we were processing him into the VA hospital, and he asked if he could have a cigarette. I told him that I could not buy them for him but would give him a few dollars so he could and he did. After his care, the local Vet Center transported him back to his home via contributions by a Veterans Service Organization. He met one of our Vet Center employees there and began the process of recovery. A few years later he wrote back to me thanking the Vet Center for saving his life and included the money I gave him for cigarettes.
What is approach do you take toward your employees at the Vet Centers?
We are the gold standard in employee satisfaction. We are also the gold standard in client satisfaction. I became very interested in that fact that if you really want to provide quality care to veterans, than you better have a top notch, happy, satisfied staff that is well-trained and well-organized. I think that has helped me a lot to make the organization work more effectively. It’s a work group that is very close and tied into the mission, and we promote the kinds of things that facilitate a good organization. In the survey, we’re ranked high on everything except bureaucracy. So that to me is an ideal profile for an organization. We also provide opportunities for employees to go and learn more about their skills and leadership and things like that.
Who has provided you with inspiration and ideas?
I had a professor named O.J. Harvey at the University of Colorado when I was doing my doctoral work. He actually took time to sit down with me and personally discuss ideas and help me translate my military and growing up experience, and re-enforce my dad’s lesson of education as being the way out. He believed in me and gave me the time to develop into a good psychologist and person, which has had a great impact on me. I also have personally inspired Senator Max Cleland from Georgia, who is currently the Secretary of the Battle and Monuments Commission. He is a great leader, a national hero, and an inspiration for all veterans in this country.
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