Muria Nisbett, 2022 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar and Vet Center Director at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, discusses her work providing support and community for isolated veterans and the lessons she learned in the Veteran Leadership Program.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your personal leadership project.
I was born and raised in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands. I served in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2009 as a mortuary affairs specialist with one combat deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. After the military, I completed my master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in business administration.
I have always had a passion for serving the veteran and military connected community. I began my career at the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012 and worked in many areas of mental health and readjustment counseling. In 2020, I was offered an opportunity to relocate back to the Virgin Islands as a readjustment counselor at the Vet Center. Moving back home helped me to see that there is a need for additional veteran centered services. I wanted to help fill the gaps, specifically with the most vulnerable veterans.
In the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program, my personal leadership project focused on connecting lonely and isolated veterans, through a service called Mission Connect 340. There are many veterans in the territory who live alone, are isolated, have limited mobility, and have limited social supports. Studies have shown that loneliness and isolation can lead to clinical conditions such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, and substance abuse issues. A simple compassionate call and meaningful conversation can go a long way in helping these veterans feel connected.
Which lessons learned during the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program have stayed with you the most, and how have you put those lessons into action?
Two of the biggest lessons that I learned during the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program are the importance of collaboration and being true to the mission. When I first decided to create Mission Connect 340, my main concern was figuring out how I would pull this off. I wondered what platform I would use, how would I recruit volunteers, and how would I convince the community to get involved. I had many doubts about the viability of this program and questioned whether I should continue to pursue this or leave it to an entity better equipped to handle the task. I know that I wanted it to be a reality, but I questioned my ability to make it happen.
The mentorship received through the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program helped me to see that this was not a solo project, but instead needed to be a collaborative effort. I received the guidance needed to connect with the right people and the appropriate organizations that could provide support. In collaboration with other leaders in the program, I was able to work through some of the potential pitfalls and formulate a plan to engage community partners in this project.
The second lesson I learned was remaining true to the mission. When I launched Mission Connect 340, I was so excited to get started and expected to have a large number of veterans signing up. I believe in the program, and I was hoping that everyone else would as well. After the first month and only having five veterans registered, I could have been disappointed, but instead I felt immense joy knowing that I get to help five veterans who would otherwise be unaccounted for and unengaged. I get to spend time hearing their stories, hearing them talk about their lives before, during, and after the military. I get to be the caring voice on the phone to remind them that they are not alone. The mission was never the numbers; the mission was being there for any veteran who decides to pick up the phone knowing that someone will answer the call.
What drives your passion for serving the military-connected community?
The veteran-connected community will always have a special place in my heart. I am proud to have stood beside many as they defended our freedom and way of life, often facing unimaginable challenges and hardships. Our veterans and servicemembers stood on the front lines, sacrificing everything, enduring the harshest of conditions, and, in some cases, making the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe them.
My passion lies with the veterans in the Virgin Islands as they continue to serve the community beyond the uniform. In every industry across the territory, you will find a veteran working to improve the welfare of all Virgin Islanders. They continue to answer the call preserve the Virgin Island way of life. They are our educators, police officers, senators, firefighters, and the list can go on. They do all of this despite not having access to some of the benefits their fellow veterans on the mainland enjoy. While I acknowledge the challenges they face, I also celebrate their incredible accomplishments. Their service has led to moments of triumph and valor, showcasing the very best of the human spirit.
Two months ago, you launched Mission Connect 340, a supportive call service for lonely and isolated veterans in the Virgin Islands. Can you share about the need for this service in the region?
Currently, there are about 7,000 veterans in the Virgin Islands, but less than 3,000 of them are registered and/or receive services at the VA. This leaves a large population of veterans who are unaccounted for. I often get calls from family members seeking services for their veterans. Sadly, these calls often come as a result of a problem, incident, or crisis. I wanted to find a way to connect with these veterans even if they are not presenting for services. I wanted to be able to reach out to them to provide support, educate on services, and to provide a source of support before their issues rise to the level of crisis.
We have a large aging veteran population in the Virgin Islands. Many of our senior veterans live alone, are isolated, have limited mobility, and lack social supports. In challenging times such as hurricanes, which happen often in the Virgin Islands, its crucial to know if there are lonely or isolated veterans who may need support. If there is a veteran who has limited mobility and cannot access resources in the time of crisis, someone should know that and be able to reach out to offer support.
In 2017, The Virgin Islands were hit with two Category V hurricanes (the most severe). There was no electricity for more than three months, and basic necessities were scarce. Many streets were closed due to debris, and curfews were in place due to the power outage. For a veteran with limited mobility, it would have been challenging for them to navigate their way to finding the services they need. Mission Connect 340 was created to ensure that our veterans have a lifeline to the care and support they need, especially in times of crisis and uncertainties.
Can you discuss the impact you hope to see from Mission Connect 340 and what success looks like?
There are currently five veterans in the program, and I have three dedicated volunteers. I know that these numbers will grow rapidly in the coming months with outreach and promotions. Three of the five veterans in the program live alone, and they do not have much social support. Receiving a weekly call has been lifechanging for them. I can hear in their voices that they look forward to these calls. Sometimes we talk about what’s happening in the news or how different life is now compared to when they grew up. It is so amazing to hear the stories about their childhood and the things they enjoyed growing up. I can tell that the calls are comforting to them, and they are comforting to me as well. The other two veterans have family support, but they still appreciate speaking to a fellow veteran about the military and their day-to-day challenges. I am so excited and looking forward to seeing this program evolve.
The goal for the next quarter is to grow the program through targeted outreach and print/digital media promotions. Success for Mission Connect 340 would include partnering with the local senior services and organizations like AARP Virgin Islands for timely referrals.