Like many military veterans in Multnomah County, Tobias Shea knows firsthand the service he rendered his country — and the struggles that followed. Shea, who served in the United States Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division, grappled with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder for many years after serving in the military. For a period of time, he also experienced homelessness.
Today, Shea is a personal trainer and a fitness instructor. Using a trauma-informed model, he teaches jiu jitsu and nutritional counseling to help other veterans work through their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His goal is to support them in overcoming their challenges through “discipline, personal accountability, mental and physical development, and selfless service.”
Shea also works with Do Good Multnomah, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless veterans access permanent supportive housing and low-barrier emergency shelter in Portland. As a veteran wellness coordinator, Shea walks with veterans as they work through the process of getting housed and back on their feet.
“I’ve personally experienced the unpleasantness of houselessness,” Shea told the Board of County Commissioners Thursday, Nov. 4. “And I’ve also personally experienced the great support network we have here in Portland for helping veterans get housed and also continue to thrive in Portland.”
Shea was a panelist Thursday as the Board recognized the observance of Veterans Day on Thursday, Nov. 11. The federal holiday pays tribute to all American veterans and current service members.
More than 40,000 veterans live in Multnomah County. Nationally, approximately 11 percent of veterans experience homelessness and 50 percent of veterans who experience homelessness also live with a mental illness, such as PTSD.
A 2020 Department of Veterans Affairs study found that factors like not being married, having a substance use disorder, being Black, or having few financial assets or family to depend on can put veterans returning to civilian life at risk for homelessness.
Multnomah County and its partners serve veterans in a variety of ways, including helping Veterans access employment, benefits, housing and healthcare.
“We need to connect as a community and elevate and celebrate the contributions of veterans and other military-involved individuals,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who serves as the Board liaison to the County’s Veterans Task Force. The task force is a collaborative established in 2010 by former Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel aimed at identifying barriers and opportunities to improve services for veterans.
County helps veterans access benefits earned through service
As a veterans’ services officer for Multnomah County’s Department of County Human Services, Fleetwood Mozee helps veterans access the state and federal benefits they’ve earned through their service. Mozee is one of several case workers trained and accredited to practice Title III law under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The team’s work allows veterans to receive monthly compensation for service-related injuries, accidents or incidents, and get access to education, health and other benefits, including housing assistance.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has worked with the Oregon and federal Veterans Affairs offices to find creative ways to serve the veteran community, often serving clients by phone or video. In some instances, the team has met veterans in the field in full personal protective equipment to help them apply for benefits.
Many veterans don’t know they’re eligible for VA benefits. Because of their service-minded ethos, many veterans are reluctant to accept help, arguing that fellow service members may need it more.
“What I want our veterans to know is that veteran benefits exist because of your service to our country,” Mozee said. “We are here to support you on the other side of service. This is one small way that we can honor you.”
Supporting the County’s veteran workforce
In addition to serving veterans and their loved ones, the County is also committed to representing veterans in its workforce. The County’s Veterans Employee Resource Group (VERG) is open to employees who have served in the armed forces, as well as their spouses, family members or anyone who supports the group’s mission.
The group supports and identifies resources for employees who have served and their loved ones. The group also helps employees access training opportunities, assists members with career mapping and advocates for veterans within the County.
Rebecca Lillie, a compliance coordinator with County Facilities and Property Management, served in the United States Navy. As the chair of the Veterans Employee Resource Group, she said the last year has presented unique challenges for the veteran community. The recent U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan has deeply affected group members, she said, many of whom served in the conflict.
“To have served there is a totally different experience and a totally different relationship with what’s happening,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “Having the VERG be a place for people to go and find community there, I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important.”
In honor of veterans and their loved ones, the resource group recently installed a display at the Multnomah Building called “The Fallen Soldier Table.” The table honors missing, imprisoned, and fallen soldiers, assuring they are not forgotten.
“When I walked into the Multnomah Building today, the first thing I saw was that beautiful table,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “It was just really so touching and meaningful to see in our lobby.”
Each item on the table conveys meaning, Lillie explained. The round shape of the table symbolizes everlasting concern for missing and fallen soldiers. The table is small and set for one. A white table cloth represents the pure intentions of the service members who heeded the call. Meanwhile, a single red rose symbolizes the faith loved ones have for the one who served.
On the table, a yellow ribbon represents continued determination in accounting for the missing. A slice of lemon conveys their bitter fate, and a pinch of salt symbolizes the tears of the loved ones. A candle stands for hope we have for their return. Faith is represented in a Bible. A drinking glass is inverted, conveying the inability of the missing to share a toast. Lastly, a chair remains unoccupied — a seat unclaimed at the table.
“The fallen soldier table is part of a very solemn ceremony,” Lillie said.
After describing the table, Lillie opened the floor for Sheila Balbin, who manages the Veterans’ Services Office, to read the proclamation celebrating Veterans Day in Multnomah County.
In closing, Chair Deborah Kafoury delivered a message to the tens of thousands of veterans living in Multnomah County. Whether you’ve been living civilian life for many years, or you’re just at the start of your transition back into civilian life, the County is committed to supporting you and your needs, she said.
”I’m thankful that this proclamation acknowledges, honors and celebrates veterans, and it gives us the chance to pause and reflect on the ideals they have taken up, as well as the sacrifices so many have made,” Chair Kafoury said. “We are always going to ensure that Multnomah County is a place that honors our veterans with action, not just through words and proclamations.”