Recorded November 8, 2014. Ray Parrish talks about his decades as a counsellor to military veterans, the post-military challenges faced especially by combat veterans, and the ways in which a less than honorable discharge can put a veteran on the wrong side of the “new jim crow”. The interlocutor for this episode is DSA’s Tom Broderick.
In 1987 I stepped into a one-person office at the Midwest Committee for Draft and Military Counseling, MCMC with some trepidation, but I had twice applied for this position after four years doing outreach in the VA’s college work/study program. I was fortunate to have a long-serving Board of lawyers, psychiatrists and community counselors who not only trained me but also worked with me on these cases and gave me the “supervision” (therapy) that I needed. MCMC’s primary concern was helping GI’s who faced discrimination or who were having trouble getting an appropriate discharge from the military, especially those claiming conscientious objection. In addition, MCMC co-authored (together with the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild) “Fighting Back,” the textbook on legal rights of homosexuals in military and veterans’ law. So, I staffed an information table at the Gay Pride parades until the local Gay Lesbian and Bisexuals Veterans of America chapter got started. The Board supported me when I expanded our work to include helping veterans win VA disability claims and “upgrading” their military discharges. It was for this purpose that I began working with a group of lawyers now known as the National Veterans Legal Service Program, NVLSP. In 1990 I was one of the first non-lawyers to represent veterans (as their “friend”) at the newly created US Federal Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims and I was the cause of the Court ruling that “friends” could represent only one vet at a time (1Vet App). During the first Gulf War I trained over a thousand lawyers and laypeople in draft, military and veterans counseling in dozens of sessions in six states. Successful grant writing allowed me to hire two veterans part-time. In 1992 I hosted a weekly live-call-in show on Chicago’s cable access TV. In 1994 I co-founded the GI Rights Hotline, a toll-free phone counseling service for military personnel and their families supported by a national network of non-profit groups. I continue to provide them with training in VA claims and take their referrals.
In 1995 I had to close MCMC after donations dried up and I had gone two years without a salary. I was immediately hired as a Veterans Service Officer by the new director of Chicago’s American Legion office representing veterans and their families in VA disability and Pension claims. He had run into me at discharge upgrade board hearings and we both had been doing outreach to local veterans with shows on Chicago’s cable access TV channel (mine was a weekly, live, call-in show). In 1999, the veterans that I represented won nearly $500,000 in retroactive benefits, an unprecedented amount. I was fired the next year in retaliation for a labor grievance that I had filed against the Legion’s state adjutant.
In 2001 fate allowed me to become a Mental Health Rehabilitation Caseworker at the Heartland Chicago Health Outreach. This experience as a member of an ACT team, working with a PSR center was life-changing for me. It gave me clinical experience with mental health professionals that complemented my work with disability claims and expanded my counseling skills to the point that I realized how limited they had been in the past. At the end of 2003 I found my first homeless Afghanistan veteran in a shelter and I notified VVAW, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, of this. I had been working with referrals from VVAW since 1979. Within a month they offered me a job staffing a counseling hotline for GI’s and veterans for $1000 a month. I took it, despite the loss of benefits.
From March 2004 to August 2012 I was Director of Military & Veterans Counseling for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Because of declining donations I was laid off by VVAW. I was on call 24/7 via cell phone. Over the phone, internet and in person I provided supportive peer-counseling, referrals, and information to military personnel, veterans and their families. I became the primary resource on VA claims for Chicago area vets groups, the GI Rights Hotline and Iraq Veterans Against the War. I helped clients to obtain and understand military and medical records, find appropriate psychological treatment and evaluations and helped them use these in VA disability claims and discharge upgrade applications. I wrote a web page on these issues at the VVAW.org web site and regular columns in VVAW’s “VETERAN.” I reviewed decisions made in discharge upgrade cases and VA disability and pension claims and helped clients understand the laws and respond to letters. Until the DoD and VA set up their suicide hotline, many calls during the first few years were “crisis” intervention. After a prisoner rights newsletter printed a story on our services we had a flood of inquiries. In response, I spent a year training 3 volunteers who all became accredited VA Claims Agents. We then hired a therapist, becoming the only veterans group with one on staff, who then began training the 40,000 volunteer mental health professionals of “The Soldiers Project.” For five years I hosted a weekly, live, call-in TV show on Chicago cable access. I arranged with other veterans groups to take turns so that every Thursday evening veterans could find help. It was streamed live by CANTV on the internet and past episodes are posted on the web at “veteranshelpingveterans.us“.