MEET THE LINCs: ‘LINC’-ING VETERANS TO SERVICES REQUIRES NEW APPROACHES FOR CALVET’S EIGHT REGIONAL OUTREACH PROFESSIONALS

Aside from having served in the U.S. military, California’s nearly 1.6 million veterans share another common link – eight of them, in fact. The California Department of Veterans Affairs’ Local Interagency Network Coordinators, or LINCs, support veterans by connecting them to their earned benefits and services. From serving vast but lesser-populated areas to smaller regions with huge numbers of veterans, LINCs are an invaluable part of CalVet’s efforts to reach California’s veterans.

“We have to meet veterans and their families where they live and work. Our LINCs are an integral part of what we do at CalVet. Not only are they connecting with veterans every day, they also know their communities and the partner organizations that we work with very well,” said Keith Boylan, deputy secretary for the Veterans Services Division that oversees the LINC program.

A unit formed more than eight years ago, the LINCs have always been highly visible in their regions that include North Valley, Bay Area, Central Coast, Central Valley, Los Angeles, Orange County, Inland Empire, and San Diego.

The LINCs’ responsibilities include attending public events such as stand downs, veterans benefits fairs, colleges and universities; building relationships with other veterans services organizations; and working with the County Veterans Services Offices throughout the state. The LINCs have staffed Local Assistance Centers (LACs) to work with veterans affected by natural disasters – fires and earthquakes. The LINCs are also heavily involved in CalVet’s California Transition Assistance Program (CalTAP) which educates veterans on their state and federal benefits, and connects them with their community-based system of care when they transition to civilian life – staying with them throughout the course of their lives.

Then, in March, the world and their world changed with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, LINCs still do everything they did before – and more. However, the handshaking, public events, and live appearances have stopped cold. Where CalVet staff at headquarters used to field calls and requests, then sent them to the appropriate LINC in the appropriate region of the state, the calls now roll directly to the LINCs.

Where they addressed veterans and service providers face-to-face, they now do so through FaceTime, Zoom, and other virtual platforms.

Already close as a group – talking frequently and working together as a team – they are now even closer. Any one of them can step in for another who is off, on reserve military duty, or on vacation.

At the same time, the LINC in each particular area has a particular area of expertise the others can draw upon if needed, and they educate each other as well.

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LINC Cole Wagenaar’s North Valley Region includes 26 counties ranging from the Oregon border south along the foothills to Tuolumne County.

A resident of Oroville and a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, Wagenaar signed on with CalVet in 2018, just two weeks before the Camp fire killed 85 people and burned more than 19,000 structures in Paradise in November of that year.

“The area has lots of older veterans living up there in retirement,” said Wagenaar. “I went through every obit(uary), scanning through to see how many were veterans.” He found at least 13 among them.

Working out of an LAC in Chico, he talked with more than 1,500 people about their losses, guiding many of them to find help through partner agencies.

A couple of veterans, he said, lost homes in Paradise only to move to Berry Creek, near Oroville, where they lost homes again in the Bear Fire this past summer. Wagenaar’s own family evacuated their home near Oroville for two days during the Bear Fire.

He spent much of his time on the road until COVID shut down most travel last spring. When that happened, and he could no longer knock on doors, Wagenaar found other ways to reach veterans, some of whom live in rural areas with no internet access, poor cellular phone coverage, or even good radio station reception.

“I worked with the (U.S.) Census and the food banks to reach them,” he said.

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Annette Wholaver loves to say, “I’m Highway 99.”

Like Wagenaar, Fresno resident Wholaver’s Central Valley region is huge geographically, stretching south to Kern County and north to Stanislaus County.

“I’m the only LINC who can program the destination into my GPS and it tells me to go straight 190 miles in either direction,” said Wholaver, a U.S. Army veteran who served in West Berlin during the Cold War. At least, she drove that vast area until COVID-19 restricted travel. Wholaver came to CalVet over two years ago after spending eight years at the state’s Employment Development Department where she worked in veteran outreach.

“Our fundamental job is outreach,” Wholaver said. COVID-19 has not stopped her from doing the job. The difference is that instead of in-person visits, she conducts webinars to reach veterans at community colleges or at Naval Air Station Lemoore, and answers the calls to headquarters that now roll over directly to the LINCs.

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The tradeoff for working from home is that the LINCs can reach more veterans and service providers due to the added flexibility of electronic and web-based platforms. In one two-week period, “I’d taken 54 phone calls that came into CalVet headquarters, and 21 emails.” said LINC Kevin Graves, whose region is the Bay Area.

Graves is a member of Cal Guard and a Gold Star parent. His son, Joey Graves, died while serving in Iraq in 2006.

Although he misses the face-to-face contact with his veteran clients, he is proud to still be able to connect service members, veterans, and their families with the benefits and services they have earned. “I’m a relationship guy,” Graves said.

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Lance Iunker is the LINC for San Diego and Imperial counties – which has the state’s largest veteran population, and the most transitioning from the military to civilian life.

He is an Army veteran who completed 200 missions in Iraq, suffered severe wounds there in 2007, and was medically retired in 2008. He earned a degree at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and joined the CalVet LINC team two years ago.

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Calvin Angel covers the Central Coast Region, stretching from Santa Cruz County south to Santa Barbara County. He was the very first LINC hired and has been with CalVet since 2010. He has built strong relationships with many service providers in his region to include college and university officials.

“Those relationships are integral in improving the quality of life for the veterans and their family members,” Angel said. “We are always looking for new and innovative ways to meet the needs of veterans and those who serve them.”

“I’ve had multiple talks with people who need assistance in using web based platforms such as Zoom or Webex,” he said. “The LINCs are here to assist veterans and providers alike in bridging the technology gap and coordinating access to community care in any way we can.”

***

Ben Gales, who serves Orange County, is a former attorney who spent years doing legal work for veterans before becoming a LINC for CalVet in 2018. Among other things, he helped create Los Angeles County’s Veterans Treatment Court, and promoted other alternative sentencing programs for veterans in the criminal justice system. Gales reflects that this past work involved “building community partnerships, understanding how multiple service providers interact, and providing advocacy and education.” He notes that these are also “core functions of LINC work,” so it was a natural transition to join CalVet.

Gales now actively collaborates with multiple veterans service providers across Orange County, where he serves as a member of the Steering Committee of the Orange County Veterans and Military Families Collaborative. He explains that LINCs play an important role in strengthening effective collaboration on issues including housing, employment, mental health, and education. He says “we work on a wide range of issues, which helps us see opportunities for improving coordination among service providers in our regions.”

Gales also speaks about how much he values working with veterans one-on-one and through making presentations to groups of veterans. He observes that “the LINC program puts us in a great position to develop a high level of knowledge regarding services in our local communities, as well as state and federal benefits. Equally important, our core values include taking the time to carefully listen to the veterans and family members who contact us, and making sure that we provide the information and connections to assistance that they need.”

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Merlene Steinbeck, whose Inland Empire region includes San Bernardino, Riverside, Inyo, and Mono counties, spent years as an aide in Congress and the California State Assembly, handling veterans’ issues among her duties.

With a large region – some of it lightly populated – she finds that the travel restrictions in some cases make it easier to talk with veterans or service providers.

“It gives me the ability to give access to the veterans who need it,” she said. “Instead of saying, ‘I’ll call you back later. I’m driving,’ I can talk to them. I’m always as transparent as possible. Veterans always appreciate transparency. You may not always give them the answer they want to hear, but it’s OK as long as you give them the right answer and point them in the right direction.”

***

Anthony Rodriguez, whose region includes Los Angeles and Ventura counties, is a Marine Corps veteran who became a LINC four years ago. He misses the direct contact with veterans and providers.

“I’m old school,” Rodriguez said. “I like to shake hands and look a veteran in the eye.” Now, when he answers a phone call, he first needs to convince callers that he is a real, live human there to help. “They’ll say, ‘Are you sure you are not a computer?’”, Rodriguez said. “‘Are you real? What’s your name?’”

Some veterans have no computer access at all. Rodriguez recently helped one by corresponding through the U.S. Mail. He takes whatever time is necessary to answer their questions.

“To make sure they understand,” Rodriguez said. “Benefits can change their lives. I send lots of emails walking them through the steps of how it is done.” A request can be as simple as helping family members secure flags and honors for their loved ones who served. “No one had explained how it works,” Rodriguez said. Until he did.

Rodriguez, like CalVet’s other LINCs, refuses to let the pandemic prevent him from doing what he loves and does best.

“We put veterans first,” he said.

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CalVet’s LINCs are ready to assist. Visit our Regional Outreach page to find the LINC for your county.

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