In early 2003, Kyle Evans joined the U.S. Army and went on his first tour of Iraq later that year. He deployed again in 2006, serving as a lead vehicle convoy commander and escorting supplies along the northern Nawa province in Mosul, Iraq. In May 2007, his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device, which blew up right under his seat. Evans suffered a traumatic brain injury and a back injury, leading to his subsequent retirement in 2010.
After relocating to Lake Nona in early 2011, Evans accepted a position at the VA and helped develop the homeless veterans program. While his employment with the VA was helpful when he attempted to access the resources available to veterans who are transitioning back into civilian life, it was still a struggle. It helped, too, that he was being monitored due to the injuries he sustained at war. “It was a challenge to navigate the system, but I was fortunate in the sense that I was being tracked since I had gotten hurt,” Evans says. “I did have people I could call.”
Many other veterans aren’t as lucky. They get stuck in red tape, often running into long wait times and being transferred to three or four people in one phone conversation. Evans says there are many veteran-focused organizations in the area that the VA is unfamiliar with so veterans have to reach out individually to learn about each mission – a time consuming and often frustrating process. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing and vice versa,” Evans says.
That’s where Mission United comes in. This collaborative community effort, spearheaded by Heart of Florida United Way (HFUW) with support from local officials, legal aid societies and various educational institutes, creates a central contact for veterans to access community support. By calling 2-1-1, HFUW’s free information and referral helpline that is staffed 24/7 by trained multilingual operators, veterans have access to support in three focus areas: legal, education and employment.
The program works on two levels. On the micro level, individual veterans are linked to the resources they need to reintegrate into civilian life, and on the macro level, systemic changes are being made to the three focus areas so that agency resources are aligned with the needs of the veteran community. Priscilla Kalagian, program manager for Mission United, describes it as a game changer. “With United Way’s positioning – the existing relationships with government entities and community organizations – it changes the landscape in the community,” she says.
Evans notes the importance of word of mouth when it comes to getting the news out about this incredibly important veteran tool. “It’s a phenomenal resource but we have to figure out how to get the word to the user,” he says.