Shawn Neisteadt (Host): Hello and welcome. You’re listening to the Innovations podcast series brought to you by Sanford Health. I’m your host, Shawn Neisteadt with Sanford Health News. Our conversation today is with Captain Paul Weckman, head of military and veteran affairs. Captain Weckman, welcome — thank you for being with us here today.
Paul Weckman: Well, Shawn, thank you for the invite. I appreciate it. This is a great day today. The sun’s out and looking forward to sharing and talking with you about veteran and military programs.
Host: And when we call you Captain Weckman, that’s just not a cute name we’ve come up with around the office for you. You’ve earned that name. Let’s talk about your background before you come here to Sanford Health.
Paul Weckman: I served honorably for 26 years on active duty in the Navy. And so the ranks of the Navy is a little different than they are in the army Marines and Air Force. So a captain in the Navy is equivalent to a full colonel in the other service.
Host: Well thank you for your service. That had to be a big transition coming out of that in, into what we would call civilian life. But you’re in kind of a familiar area here at Sanford.
Paul Weckman: Yes. Transition is, is one of the, probably most difficult things for a lot of military folks. And that was one things that this job was not only a challenging career, but I’m answering a calling too because a lot of veterans do struggle in trying to get back and transition into not only the civilian world, into the workforce, because completely different cultures, different mindset. That was one of the challenges. But again, to me, it’s almost self-healing to have that ability to kind of speak bilingual as well, and to be able to translate for those veterans transitioning and because I’ve been there and done it.
Host: And that’s one of the areas that your department works in right now is becoming an employer of choice as we call it around here. Kind of tell us what that’s all about.
Paul Weckman: Yeah. Well, when I first took this position, we created it and that was one of the things as military people always ask us is, OK, what’s your desired end state? Or what do you want me to accomplish here? We agreed upon three buckets that I have to fill. And the first one would be being an employer of choice. And with that is how we have veterans, military, guard, reserve members — if they have a choice to work in the civilian workforce, you know, a choice in that, why not make the choice of coming to Sanford health. And at the same time, they feel that they’re either appreciated or recognized for their service in their skill sets. Because a lot of the skill sets they acquire in the military are not even close to being the same as civilian workforce. You know, a tank driver, we don’t have those. I was a ship driver and I’m not driving any ships at Sanford right now. But we have other acquired skill sets that we do want to recognize more leadership skills, and then the ability to be able to do multiple tasking and then just a lot of those different attributes and skill sets that hopefully we can understand, recognize and utilize those working here at Sanford Health.
Host: And there are benefits for those who are veterans or still active with their military careers should they choose to work at Sanford Health or at the Good Samaritan Society.
Paul Weckman: Absolutely. I’m so proud of our leadership. They agreed and understand how important it is, especially for guard and reserve members that are citizen soldiers, as they say, they work here full-time. And then part-time, well either one weekend a month, two weeks out of the year or when they’re mobilized, they’re gone. And so how do we ensure that they have that same type of a lifestyle because unfortunately they, they may be deployed and then their paycheck is lowered. So what we have is what they call differential pay. We make up the difference. And I’m proud to say that we are one of the best or the best throughout the entire United States for having such an aggressive differential pay program that basically covers up to a whole entire year. And there’s not many organizations that do that. And I think that’s one of the reasons, too, that we were recognized recently with the Department of Defense Freedom Award. And that’s one of the things that they weigh heavily on is how well we take care of guard, reserve members.
Host: So speaking of employer of choice, let’s say a veteran is listening out there right now. How should they go about applying for a job here at Sanford Health or at the Good Samaritan Society?
Paul Weckman: Great question. One the things that we have created just recently is it’s a career site — sanfordcareers.com is where they would go once they get to that landing zone, there’ll be a dropdown menu where it’s the, the about tab. And in there we’ll have veterans and you click on that, that tab of veterans and then immediately it will take you to a site where it’s totally designed for veterans. They understand it. For example, if they, we call it a MOS, which is like a military operate, you know, occupational standards code, they can type in that three or four digit code. And within the nanosecond transmit it, interpret it into a civilian skill set that Sanford Health has. If you were a truck driver in the Army, you probably will find a job opening to drive trucks or vehicles for one of our programs. If you’re interested in doing that — if you’re a medic and you type that in, you’re going to be either a certified registered nurse or a certified nurse assistant, or, you know, a BSN nurse.
Host: You often talk about some educational opportunities. I know you and I have talked in the past about scholarships and how we recognize veterans across Sanford Health. Tell us about that.
Paul Weckman: Absolutely matter of fact, this last week, that’s where I was on the road giving out $5,000 scholarships to the individuals that are veterans all over our footprint. You know, I’ve been in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota this last week, and to see the smiles on these veterans — I always do it in front of their peers in the classroom They not only have served, but they have great community service and volunteerism that they really maybe demonstrated leadership skills, but they’re just all around great veterans and also students academically, and they’ve been doing real well.
And so this last week, that was one of the best parts of my job is to be able to surprise them and award them with a $5,000 scholarship. So that, that, that’s one of the programs that we do. And it’s just a great program that we have. Another one is for those employees at Sanford health, we do have what they call a veteran of the year award. And we also have a veteran advocate of the year award. So for those who aren’t even a veteran, it’s what they do to help support veterans can get recognized as well.
Host: Those are some of the big things, but there’s also little things I notice in the hallways at Sanford Health. And that is if you just pass somebody in a hallway and you look at their badge and they’re a veteran, it says so.
Paul Weckman: That’s one of the cool things that a lot of people don’t understand the importance of being recognized as a veteran, not only as an employee, but my second bucket is we want to be a provider of choice for veterans. So we have found when a veteran comes in to seek medical care and the first person they is the nurse who is screening them, and there’s a veteran across that ID badge right away, that will instantly lower their anxiety level. They can just instantly start relating that, OK, here’s a fellow veteran, here’s our fellow brother or sister that I’ve worked with in serving in arms, and then just, they relax. They open up and they feel more comfortable of being there as a patient. And that’s probably one of the coolest things that I see in comments. I hear of about how we’re not only veteran friendly is as an employer, but then also as a provider.
Host: As a provider, there’s also the veteran ambassador program — which is kind of similar to what you’re talking about. They’re veterans reaching out to veterans.
Paul Weckman: What we do is in the morning when they come in, they can pull the list of veterans because we do track the veterans. We ask them if they are a veteran patient and we have it in our electronic medical record. And there we can track when we know who our veterans are, if they self-identify. So we go visit them in the hospital. A lot of these maybe not have a loved one that can come visit them. If they’re there for a period of say, maybe five days, maybe they had a hip replacement or heart surgery or whatever the case may be is. And then we come in and we visit with them. Along with that, we recognize their services. We provide them a little small token, and it’s a veteran pin. The stories, unfortunately a Vietnam veteran commented when we provided them this pin and pinned him with it, he says, this is the most recognition I’ve ever had since my Vietnam days. And again, that generation had a pretty tough reception coming back home. And to see that is showing that we really are making a difference and recognize these veterans across the board.
Host: Moments like that. How important are those to you?
Paul Weckman: Well, it can be pretty emotional. Tears sometimes do come. The veterans program, like I said, we did a great Sanford Health News story on it. You can always go online and, and, you know, screen for it and look at it, but it’s called the ambassador program, but you will see in every one of those veterans’ eyes, the emotions, the appreciation for just being recognized and just someone even stopping by for a few minutes in. And the other part of it is our volunteers. When they get done at the end of the day, they are so self gratified and humbled to be in this program. And really to them, it’s a healing process, maybe for them as well, definitely a gratifying process where they really feel good about themselves, that they helped a fellow veteran in time of need.
Host: Sanford Health has a veteran information hotline, kind of a one-stop shop for veterans out there, kind of their single point of contact. If they have questions, I’ve got the number in front of me, it’s (800) 949-1848. For any veterans out there who may have questions they can just call in right there. And again, they’re going to be talking to someone who’s going to speak their language.
Paul Weckman: Correct. And it’s one of those things now that we’ve had this up and running for a few years, that it’s great that they can talk to someone. And then they will say, if it’s an employee question, they will go right to that department. Or if it’s a billing issue, we’ll go to, you know, it would go to that department. So it’s pretty seamless operation. And as far as the number of calls, it’s great now that there is one source, you know, for that.
Host: The program and veterans clubs across some of the major medical centers at Sanford Health, kind of tell us about those as well.
Paul Weckman: We decided on this a few years ago, there’s nowhere in the nation that has, but in the military, we call them USO clubs. It’s just a way to get away from everything. And some people say maybe to chill out or just to relax and just do nothing, but it’s exactly what I just said. And so the concept we figured, well, why can’t we do this in the hospital? Veterans are there. And sometimes could be there all day. If they’re doing lab work or they’re waiting for results or waiting for their next appointment. And we live in a rural area. And so in North and South Dakota are both designated rural areas. States people could be driving for hours and for, to get here, why not find a place for them just to hang out? And in addition to not only the veteran, we could also have it for their family members or their healthcare provider.
Basically anybody there that might be a provider or help them get around. And it’s really cool. Even our veterans service county officers, there may be shuttling them. There is a caretaker. They too could stop and use the same facility. So we’re seeing that there is great use out of it. And then it was kind of really cool is when they’re in there and then two families are in there and us, military families, all of a sudden the next thing there, they’re sitting next to each other, maybe share names and you know, they’d always know someone else or this or that, and then their help. And again, we see the anxiety levels come way down because they’re visiting with each other. And we always are there to kind of have each other’s back, always be there to take care of them. And we were always great and resources and try to help them: Hey, do you hear about this or this or that or that?
And so that’s what we’re seeing. If you were to go into the veterans club and I challenge people, if you are a veteran and you go into the club, just read the comments that are in the guest book. That’s the part I can go in there any day. If I just want to get cheered up, I just read the comments because they are so gratifying to see and appreciative of how they have a place. If they just want to hang out, they want to, we have computers in there. If they want to get on the internet, if they want to play board games, we have board games that they want to watch TV. They have TVs, or if they just want to relax, shut their eyes and relax in one of the La-Z-Boy chairs there, that’s great there. And we always have coffee that is always on. And if they want to have a cup of coffee, sometimes we might even have a pastry or something there, but it’s just a great place to go and just forget about most things and just relax.
Host: One thing I want to talk about before we talk about community outreach as well, and this kind of gets into that is the Sanford Chip for veterans that was unveiled here a couple of years ago. Update us on that program, where it is and what that means.
Paul Weckman: Sure. So nationally, we do have a mutual agreement with the VA out of Washington, D.C. When we announced this back a few years ago, in 2019, with generous gifts from Denny Sanford and Sanford, the foundation all came together, came up with a $50 million contribution. It is called the PHASER program — is what the VA has identified is there’s approximately 170 or so veterans hospitals out there. So across the United States, if a VA would get enrolled in this program at no cost to the veteran, they would be able to get a simple blood test. A physician now can prescribe the medication that genetically speaking when metabolized in their body and be effective versus in the past, maybe a physician or someone that was administering medications would just trial by error here, give this a try.
If it works fine, if not come back and maybe we’ll up the dosage or maybe on something else, but this kind of eliminates the dosage and eliminates the trial by error and guessing game. I call it medicine that designed for your body, not mind when it comes to what your body’s metabolizing better. And we’re finding out that it’s saving lives. I mean, you think about, from blood thinning after surgery to prevent blood clotting, after a major heart surgery, we’re finding out that some were not prescribed, they were prescribed maybe a blood thinner, but not the right blood thinner. And so we’re seeing that from the results in the last couple years of that, we’re also seeing, for example, someone that might be on an antidepressant, some of them have post-traumatic stress. Why not get them on the right one the first time? It could save lives.
The suicide rate in veterans is way higher than it should be. And it’s way above the civilian side of things. And so that’s one way that we can help reduce that as well as by getting them on the right dosage in the right meds. Sanford has the same opportunity, no cost for veterans. So if you were a Sanford patient too, you could go in as a veteran and request it and right, it’d still be no cost and you could get those results within a few weeks, and that will go through your primary care. So we’re kind of running two programs, the same thing in parallel, but for those that are not visiting or have in Sanford is our primary care. They’re just going to have to be a little bit more patient, wait for the VA to get us up and running. And like I said, I anticipate it within the next month or so we should be both programs up and running.
Host: Pretty amazing time in history that a little blood test can tell you exactly what you need to take and when and how much. I want to also talk to you about some the community support that is offered from Sanford Health out there for veterans and active military.
Paul Weckman: And that would be my third and last bucket. It would be that community outreach and us being the partner of choice. So we got to take a look at it is what do we have in locally within our footprint as well? The South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance. And it’s the first in the nation to give that I’m aware of where you have a collaboration of like the VFW, the American Legion, all these other organizations under one roof.
And that is one of the things that I was just at down there just a few minutes before here, and to give tours to some people that just first word out of their mouth is wow. We have meeting rooms out there. So we have meetings going on all the time with these veteran organizations that can come out there and gather in place. So it’s kind of like one stop shop and everybody can come there.
We have a lot of veteran owned businesses that rent out, lease spaces there.
Host: It’s not just you tooting your horn and talking about all the great things going on here at Sanford Health and the Good Samaritan Society. There’s been quite a bit of recognition for the work in that space as well.
Paul Weckman: We have now the first in the nation that I’m aware of just south of Sioux Falls in Parker, South Dakota, it’s called Wings of Valor Lodge. And again, I’m very proud to be an employee of Sanford because they came to us first because the community gets it. They understand how we feel about taking care of our veterans because it’s just the right thing to do. And they approached us and they had a concept, an idea about having the first, ever in the nation, again, an idea of having a hunting lodge just for veterans. And, not only is there hunting, but there’s a lot of other things that are going on out there. And it’s usually a three or four day event out there. And I am happy to say that they’re going to celebrate their one year anniversary here coming up next week.
But the outreach we’re having people coming from all over the United States flying in and about every two weeks, there’s another group. It’s fully ADA compliant and also wheelchair accessible. It’s like I said, the first in the nation that I’ve seen where they feel so comfortable being out there because we can accommodate all those. We have wheelchairs with tracks on it, all the rooms have been designed by a 27-year-old Marine that has no legs that, that he stepped on IED in Afghanistan. He designed these rooms while he was in his wheelchair. So he gets it and he designed it that way. And that’s how we built it. And so they’re comfortable. They’re independent out there. They don’t need help. And that’s what they enjoy being out there.
Host: That’s perfect. Captain Weckman, I want to thank you for your time today, and also more importantly, thank you for your service.
Paul Weckman: Well, you’re welcome. And I appreciate that. Thank you, Shawn.
Host: To learn more about how Sanford Health supports veterans visit sanfordhealth.org and search veterans. This was another episode of the Innovations podcast series by Sanford Health. For Sanford Health News, I’m Shawn Neisteadt. Thanks for listening.
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