More than 75,000 volunteers give 11 million hours a year in service to America’s Veterans. It is impossible to calculate the amount of caring, sharing and impact VA volunteers have on Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors. For Army Veteran Bill Browning, spending time inside a VA hospital as a patient put him on the path to becoming the Chief of Voluntary Service at the Detroit VA Medical Center.

Fred Piess and Bill Browning are Veterans that continue to serve through the VA Voluntary Service program.

Fred Piess and Bill Browning are Veterans that continue to serve through the VA Voluntary Service program.

Bill laughs and says, “This may date me, in 1987, I found myself in a VA hospital bed. I was nervous and scared, facing a diagnosis that I had no information or clue about, type 1 diabetes. A VA volunteer visited with me and offered me assistance. Something as simple as a craft kit to keep me occupied as I recovered gave me hope. I finished the craft kit and hung the final product in my office.”

Demonstrating how powerful and moving one patient experience and volunteer interaction can be, Bill came to work for VA nine years after his hospital stay. Bill says, “My time spent in the military was rewarding, I never thought I’d come back to VA, but the care I received there was such a motivation and it really changed my life, saved my life.”

Bill oversees more than 400 active volunteers in Detroit, including 12 Red Coat Ambassadors. “It’s a unique job,” states Bill, “when patients see a Red Coat, we prep that volunteer to have enough tools in their toolbox to provide answers or at least know where to find answers for our guests.” According to Bill, “Red Coats are important to deliver a standard of excellence at every VA Medical Center. You know when you see a Red Coat, you’ll get the help you need.”

As far as the Red Coat and volunteer mission, Bill says, “People don’t usually want to come to a hospital, typically they are not feeling well, so the goal is to ensure every interaction with any volunteer is going to make them feel a little bit better.”

Air Force Veteran and Red Coat Ambassador Fred Piess talks with visitors at the Detroit VA.

Air Force Veteran and Red Coat Ambassador Fred Piess talks with visitors at the Detroit VA.

Fred Piess is one of the Red Coat Ambassadors at Detroit VA working with Bill. Fred, an Air Force Veteran, has 32 years experience as a Michigan state social worker, with 27 of those years spent working with children and protective services. Fred is also a member and representative of the Jewish War Veterans service organization. Fred’s post commander suggested he volunteer at the VA in 2016 and he’s been a part of the team ever since.

With Fred’s social work experience, he is a natural for the Red Coat Ambassador position. “Working with people, solving problems and getting them to the right place for whatever they need is my job,” says Fred.

Earlier this week, Fred was coming out of the Volunteer office near a parking structure, where he saw a Veteran leaning heavy on his cane and out of breath. Fred grabbed a wheelchair and got him to where he needed to go. What makes Fred feel great about his volunteer service is, “knowing that if he had to walk he never would have made it. Those are the moments that matter.”

Fred is developing a facility map of services for Veterans and staff to help them navigate the hospital and, like all other Detroit Red Coats, serves as a Patient Advocate Liaison to help with on-the-spot service recovery. Fred says, “Sometimes you listen to a person, the problem isn’t so much VA, it’s the understanding of the benefits, services and programs.”

Why would you want to be a VA Volunteer?  One of the most important benefits of volunteering is the opportunity to explore and fulfill your passions. For many VA volunteers, that passion is serving Veterans. For others, their “why” is the chance to explore a new career field.  For some, they like feeling like they are investing in an activity that is making a difference in their community.

“What brought me to VA’s Voluntary Service was my experience as a VA patient and having that memory of spending my time in the hospital and a volunteer visiting me, offering help. They [volunteers] gave me hope to press forward and one day join them as a team,” says Bill Browning.

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Published on Apr. 15, 2019

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