Helping vets get the services they need

After serving their country as members of the military, many veterans return home and seek careers in the building trades, including plumbing. Quite a few Local 12 members are veterans.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for them to make the transition to civilian life. Vets may not be aware of services that are available to them or know how to access them. That’s where Mike Degeis comes in.

An employment and outreach specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Degeis has been busy connecting with Local 12 members and other construction workers. Based in Bedford at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, he began making the connections about two years ago as part of the VA’s Supported Employment Engage and Keep (SEEK) program. In that time, he has helped about 150 veterans, approximately half of which are in the building trades–including around 35 Local 12 members. One of them is Shawn Ingraham.

“As a veteran you can feel isolated when you come home,” says Ingraham, a fourth-generation Local 12 member. “You realize it’s not what you thought it would be.” A Marine Corps vet like Degeis, he says that the VA rep has been instrumental in providing support and acting as a liaison with the agency.

“Mike put together a group for Local 12 veterans,” Ingraham explains. “It’s been very therapeutic for a lot of us.” Less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population are active-duty military personnel, and a small percentage of those see combat. Ingraham was deployed to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. “We’re part of that fraternity. We need the community, and Mike’s been great at creating it for us,” he adds.

Mike Degeis, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Massachusetts
Mike Degeis, an employment and outreach specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsU.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and his son, Qunicy.

When the COVID pandemic hit, the group temporarily stopped its regular meetings. But Ingraham says that Degeis continued to keep in contact with him. “It’s kind of like a buddy check. It goes a long way.”

Degeis says that the VA has long had an education program that helps pave the way for veterans to attend college. But veterans who went directly to work sometimes fell through the agency’s cracks. The relatively new SEEK program is a way to help ensure that vets get the care and resources they need to help them remain healthy and employed. Beyond the support group, Degeis works individually with vets to assist them as necessary.

As Degeis explains, it’s important that they continue to have a mission. If vets encounter some challenges in their lives, it may affect their ability to hold onto a job. That could lead to a spiraling cascade in which they not only lose their job but can no longer afford housing.

“They held themselves in high regard at one point of their lives when they were protecting the USA,” says Degeis. “Now they’re a homeless vet without a job.” Before it gets to that point, he is there to support both the vet and the employer. The agency will do whatever it takes to meet the veteran’s needs and to keep him or her on the job. That might mean mental health services through the VA, or it might mean making arrangements with other medical providers or agencies.

Sometimes, more than jobs and housing are at stake. The SEEK program also helps address the high suicide rates among veterans. “We can’t wait for veterans to be in crisis mode,” Degeis says. “We want to be proactive.”

The agency will also help veterans with less urgent and more practical matters. It might be educational benefits or a VA-backed home loan, for example. Ingraham says that when he went from the Marine Corps into the Reserves, some of his paperwork got mixed up. He discovered the problem when he tried to set up vocational rehab services. Rather than attempting to wade through the bureaucracy, he turned to Degeis who was able to intervene and sort everything out.

“We have a lot of members who are appreciative of the help Mike provides,” says Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent. He has been working with Degeis to help spread the word about the SEEK program. The pair have visited several job sites to make introductions, and Keady has set the VA rep up with general contractors so he could meet with more veterans in the field.

Keady notes that veterans are highly valued in the trades. “They’re generally more mature. They know where they are going in life.” Because of their military experience, vets work well as part of a team–a desirable trait for the kinds of large-scale projects on which Local 12 members often work. “They are natural leaders,” Keady adds. The business agent praises Degeis and the SEEK program, saying that it has been very effective.

Degeis hopes to replicate the success he has had with Local 12 and other building trades and expand the program to other employers. He’d also like to use the example he has set in the Boston area and take the SEEK program national. “We’d like to show other VAs how to do the same thing with their union partners.”