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Southern California military veterans with disabilities find work, renewed purpose — thanks to one of their own

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About a dozen men and women with backpacks slung over their shoulders and notebooks in their hands file past Bill Morisette. They look like college students. Maybe someday they will be.

Right now, they are looking for work. As military veterans with disabilities that range from mental health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder to physical impairments that include traumatic brain injuries, employment isn’t all that easy to get.

But Morisette makes a confident prediction about their workplace futures as he watches them head into a room at the Tierney Center for Veteran Services in Tustin: “Ninety percent of these guys will be placed.”

He’s not just saying that because the man giving them instruction about networking on Day 4 of the 10-day “Mission: Employment” training  is a Marine Corps veteran who shouts “Oorah!” on his way into the room.

Morisette has the numbers to back up his statement: Since he arrived in October 2016 to introduce the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program to Goodwill of Orange County’s Tierney Center, more than 200 unemployed disabled veterans whose lives were going nowhere have been placed in jobs paying an average of about $24 an hour.

The goal is to engage them in meaningful, career-oriented work within 30 days of finishing “Mission: Employment.”

Chapter 31 is the same program that helped Morisette, 54, find his own way back to a fulfilling civilian life after 21 years of military service in the Army that included fighting in Iraq during the Gulf War while on active duty and then, as a reservist, bearing grim news a little over a decade later to families of fallen soldiers dying, again, in Iraq.

Morisette, who grew up in Pico Rivera and now lives in Santa Ana, knows the struggles of the veterans who come to the Tierney Center. He once felt defeated and found a way to rebuild his life.

“He’s been there and he knows where we’re coming from, which is crucial,” said Charles “Cass” Spence, a Marine Corps veteran who has started on a second career at the Orange County Veterans Service Office thanks to Morisette.

Morisette battles his own PTSD demons, a traumatic brain injury and other service-related physical ailments. He overcame drug abuse early in his life and sobered up from a drinking problem in his middle ages. He’s been through two divorces. He’s fought with the Army and the VA over disability benefits.

In 2012, Morisette, who holds an MBA from University of La Verne, was living with his parents in Idaho and drinking heavily. He moved out, spending nights in his car and flea bag motels. Through therapy and intense physical exercise, he climbed out of his deep depression, returning to California in 2013, to be closer to his children.

Money wasn’t a problem, he said. But he had no purpose and felt isolated. His service dog Sport, a golden retriever, helped him cope with life outside four walls. Then in 2014, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the VA in Long Beach introduced him to Chapter 31.

“I went to him when I was broke,” Morisette says of James Malone, the counselor at the VA who became his mentor. “He’s the one that turned me around.”

Now, Morisette does the same for others, overseeing a staff of eight people who work with the Chapter 31 veterans. And, in a twist that makes Morrison smile, Malone is based out of the Tierney Center with him, one of four counselors who relocated there from a basement at the VA offices in Long Beach about a year ago.

Authorized under Chapter 31 of the GI Bill, the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program works with ex-service members who have a discharge that is other than dishonorable and meet a certain level of service-connected disability, along with what the VA calls an “employment handicap.”

There are more than 9,000 of them in the VA’s Los Angeles regional area, which includes Orange County.

Right place, right time

Chapter 31 is a natural fit for the holistic approach at Tierney Center, which opened its doors in mid-2016.

The center, named after the Coto de Caza couple whose $1 million gift solidified its beginnings, provides employment and education counseling, housing assistance, legal help, financial guidance, and assistance in applying for health care benefits. It is housed at the massive Goodwill of Orange County donations processing center in Tustin and relies on peer navigation of resources available to former service members, mostly employing veterans like Morisette to assist other veterans.

The Tierney Center began in the shadow of an in-depth 2015 study on the challenges many of Orange County’s military veterans — numbered at more than 133,000 — face in civilian life. Employment was a particular frustration of younger veterans the study surveyed.

Not long after the center opened, Morisette pitched the idea of establishing an on-site Chapter 31 program. He had spent nearly 17 months as an intern with the Chapter 31 program at the Long Beach VA, helping to place disabled veterans in internships that could lead to careers. The program includes wages paid by the VA during the internships.

Those who work with Morisette credit his energy and his expertise for the program’s success so far at Tierney Center.

“Bill brings first of all a passion to help veterans,” said Jeff Pagano, veterans services manager at the center and a Marine Corps veteran. “When I say that, I truly mean it. He feels it in his heart because he was an unemployed vet at one time — just like me.”

Learning on the job

Morisette honed his job placement skills during his own internship. More than half the veterans he assisted in 2015 saw their internships turn into full-time, permanent positions with government agencies and private employers in Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

“I was still an intern myself and here I’m getting other people jobs.”

Jacques Alliali is one of the veterans Morisette assisted while at the VA.

Alliali, 41, served nine years in the Army, including combat duty in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. He suffered traumatic brain injury and back injuries from an improvised explosive device in 2006. Discharged with a medical disability in 2012, Alliali says he looked for work incessantly, sending resumes, filling out online job applications and seeking help from different services advertising veterans outreach.

Alliali, who was living with an uncle and his family in West Covina, described himself as depressed, suicidal and on the brink of homelessness when he met Morisette in late 2014.

“Bill came to my rescue. He’s like my Good Samaritan,” Alliali said. “He made me understand that there are people out there who want to help the veterans. People like him.”

Because of his disabilities, Alliali needed a desk job.  Morisette placed him as an intern with the Social Security Administration in Los Angeles. Beyond that, he became a cheerleader for Alliali, even driving to Los Angeles to meet him for lunch and a dose of encouragement.

“He pushed me and made me believe I can do it, because I was very, very depressed,” Alliali said. “Bill said, we’re just going to give you a chance, place you with the agency. Go and do your best. Give them your all.”

His internship turned into a permanent job in September 2015. Today, Alliali is doing well as a claims specialist: He got a promotion, won an outstanding service award, and bought a house last year in Walnut. He still has nightmares and suffers nerve pain, but he is happy.

“I’m a prime example of Chapter 31,” Alliali said. “It gave me a second wind to have a life again.”

Man on a mission

Morisette pitched his idea for a Chapter 31 program at Tierney Center after a short stint as a veterans career consultant with an Orange County One-Stop employment and training center. In 2017, the Vocational and Rehabilitation Employment program he spearheads put 211 veterans in full-time internships and jobs. That’s out of a total of 287 who found work through all the Tierney Center employment efforts.

Most of the jobs that Morisette has placed veterans in are at government agencies; he is hoping to increase the number of private companies open to working with the Chapter 31 program.

Marine Corps veteran Spence said he came to the Tierney Center after failing to land a job on his own. Spence, 51, fought in the Gulf War in 1990 and went back to Iraq for a year as a reservist after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also worked nearly two decades for the city of Newport Beach, most of that time as a code enforcement officer.

In 2014, Spence left a job he had transferred to in the refuse department as the city began outsourcing trash services. Given his experience, he thought he’d have no problem finding something else. No such luck. Age might have been a factor, but Spence said he also was wound tight from his combat experience. With a mortgage to pay on his Santa Ana Heights home and two kids in high school, he felt pressured to find employment. He finally turned to the Tierney Center and Morisette in January 2016.

“Bill said, ‘I can get you a job and I can get you hooked up at a place right now.’ He didn’t play around,” said Spence, who also felt he was in the right place after running into Pagano, a friend from school days. After an internship and some volunteer time at OC Veterans Service, he was hired three months ago, mostly assisting veterans in filing compensation and benefits claims.

Spence doesn’t make a lot of money, but he experiences the same satisfaction that Morisette does helping Chapter 31 veterans.

“I fit in here and all I do is help veterans,” he said. “I go home with a smile on my face every day.”

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© 2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.