When I last caught up with Dr. Paul Lawrence, it was at a fall conference in Oklahoma City. The Army veteran who heads up the VA’s benefits division—the Veterans Benefits Administration—was doing what he does best: traveling, meeting people and connecting with veterans on social media. Check out the resulting article: Not Your Father’s VA.
Things have changed a bit since then. The COVID-19 pandemic has grounded the man who oversees the administration of veterans benefits—including the GI Bill®. But that hasn’t stopped him from connecting with veterans. It’s just changed the way he’s doing it.
I chatted with Lawrence by phone, and he talked about the weekly whiteboard sessions he’s doing on social media, how he’s connected with nearly a quarter of a million veterans by phone in seven states through Tele-Town Halls, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way this critical pillar of the VA does business. His responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the VBA’s daily operations?
Lawrence: It’s had a significant effect on how we do business. We’re still open for business, but it is different, and so probably north of 95% of our employees are now teleworking. And this was actually planned. We have a big telework capability, and VA’s Office of Information Technology has really upped the bandwidth, so we’re doing quite well with that.
So what we keep telling folks is, ‘We’re available at the toll free number, 1-800-827-1000, or on the web at va.gov, and that we’re still open for business. Call us. Contact us.
How has the pandemic changed the way you operate as a VA leader?
Lawrence: I’m a big believer in social media, and then of course getting out to the conferences. So you can’t do that anymore, and that’s been very frustrating because I really value that time to interact with veterans and hear what people have to say and answer questions.
So I started doing two things on social media. The first was using LinkedIn Live. This is a feature that just allows you to record and be shared in LinkedIn. So every Friday at noontime I try to do what I call a ‘Whiteboard Session – VBA in 10 Minutes,’ where I provide veterans and others the latest of what’s going on at VBA—a little bit of VA—but mostly VBA, answering some of the things you’re asking: What about this? What about that? And then providing some toll-free numbers that we have, and then also talking about the Tele-Town Halls. And sometimes, answering some of the questions that were presented in the Tele-Town Halls just to get closure because I either didn’t know the answer or wanted to go deeper into the answer. It’s an effective tool, but of course you have to be on LinkedIn.
The Tele-Town Halls then kind of emerged out of that as a desire to do more Q&A. LinkedIn Live, I would say, is one-way communication. But the Tele-Town Halls were designed to get information to folks who maybe aren’t on LinkedIn and aren’t on the web, but also to answer questions. So, if you have a chance to listen in, it’s a pretty short communication from me, and then we take calls from veterans, family members and the like, who ask questions—how does this work? How does that work? I answer right there, and then we post the FAQs—the Frequently Asked Questions—later on social media so people can see it. So that’s been a really, really good change. So far I’ve done seven of these, and I’ve hit almost 225,000 folks on the phone, and so it’s kind of a big deal in terms of getting the word out. I like them so much I think I’ll continue doing both of these when we return to the new normal to augment or complement travel.
What questions do you hear most frequently?
Lawrence: Perhaps the most repeated question is asking about spousal benefits: What will my wife get, says the husband, when I die? So I get a lot of questions about that.
We get surprisingly frustrating questions such as, ‘Will my benefits continue?’ As if somehow we would stop those benefits.
What message do you have for service members getting ready to transition from the military?
Lawrence: The VA’s here to help. We continue to be open for business. It’s not business as usual—it’s a little bit different. But especially if you need help with your benefits, we’re on the web at va.gov as well as the 1-800-827-1000 number. So please, please, please—we’re here to help and we know now during this time it’s particularly important.
I would remind them that while it’s probably more frustrating than it was just a couple months ago when veteran unemployment was at a record low, the fundamentals of our economy are strong, and while it will be difficult for a little while, I would expect that desire to employ veterans will rebound. It will be just a matter of time, and everybody’s going through this process in terms of how they’ve been changed regardless of the situation. So we understand.
And then the final thing is, if the social isolation and the combination of things is really causing problems and they think they or a buddy might be in crisis or just needing some attention, I would ask you to remind them of the crisis line: 1-800-273-8255. That line is manned by people ready to do interventions, whether it’s conversation or sending somebody to their homes to be dealt with. You can also do it on text—some people like that—you can text 838255. So I guess my message would be: Regardless of your situation, we’re here. You can reach us. No matter how bad it seems, it isn’t as bad as they might imagine and we’re here to help.
Here are three key VBA programs Lawrence highlighted:
Post-9/11 GI Bill®: Heralded as the best military education benefit in US history, Congress recently enacted legislation to keep benefits flowing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For information, visit va.gov or call the toll free number: 1-888-GIBILL-1
Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program: Provides veterans with job training, employment accommodations, résumé development, and job seeking skills coaching. Other services may be provided to assist veterans and service members in starting their own businesses or independent living services for those who are severely disabled and unable to work in traditional employment. For information, visit the VR&E Process page.
Solid Start: Launched recently to call every newly separated service member three times during their first year out of service to discuss their transition experience, ask questions about navigating benefits, and connect with resources to ease challenges they may face. “We’re reminding everybody to please take the phone call, and let us help the veterans,” Lawrence said.