Helping veterans: Attorney is the new director of the MVAA

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Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Director Zaneta Adams stands in the hallway of her new office in Lansing.

Photo by Cynthia Price

By Cynthia Price
Legal News
 
“Coming out of Muskegon I didn’t know much about the Veterans Affairs Agency, and I’ve talked to veterans who had never heard of it. So it will be my goal to make sure that we are very well-known,” says Zaneta Adams, the newly appointed director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA).

Those who know Adams know that she is approximately 100 percent likely to achieve her goal, which is one among many that she shares with the current Michigan administration.

“Michigan’s veterans were willing to sacrifice everything for our country, and we owe it to each of these brave men and women to provide the benefits and support services that they’ve earned,” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer in a statement at the time of the appointment in mid-June. “Zaneta has worked tirelessly to improve veterans’ lives and the services they earned during their time in uniform. I look forward to working alongside her to bring the best possible care to our veterans and build a stronger Michigan that honors their service.”

Adams sees herself mainly as a “connector,” a role she says is completely in keeping with the mission of the MVAA. “Statutorily, we are the central coordinating agency,” she says. “We’re supposed to be coordinating with everyone working in the state to help our veterans.

“I’m going to be continuing to create partnerships with other state departments and the federal agencies, sharing those resources, so veterans don’t have to go to 20 different places to get benefits and services. If they can just remember 800-MICH-VET, that’s so much easier,” she adds, referring to the number of the MVAA Call Center.

Most recently, Adams worked at Williams and Hughes in Muskegon, where she acted as both counselor and litigator, doing municipal work in the Muskegon area and assisting veterans to receive their benefits.
Simultaneously, she contracted with the Michigan Attorney General as a presenter in the OK2Say anti-bullying program; was a consumer reviewer of proposals concerning research with wounded service members for the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research program; and headed up WINC:?For All Women Veterans, which she founded. (WINC formerly stood for Women in Combat, but that has since been dropped.)

Adams started WINC: For All Women Veterans when she realized the needs of female returning veterans were different than those of males. While lending her talents (which include a beautiful singing voice) to a wide variety of national pro-veterans groups – until accepting the MVAA position, she was still the community affairs director for Challenge America – she observed that most of the male-oriented sponsored activities involved competition and surmounting challenges, whereas most of the women sought to talk and process their service and return to civilian society.

Adams was the driving force behind the 2018 designation, by the legislature, of June 15 as Women Veterans Day. Governor Whitmer herself named June 12 Women Veterans Recognition Day this year. This reflects the increasing population of women in the military branches, currently approximately 2 million in the U.S., even as the overall veterans population declines.

In fact, the MVAA itself launched a campaign called “She is a Veteran” in May to raise awareness and build trust among females who have served.

For Adams, the road to success has been arduous. Her own service consisted of eight years in the U.S. Army National Guard/Army Reserve, during which time she received her B.A. in psychology from Columbia College in Chicago.

Unexpectedly, she was called up for active duty and started to train for deployment in Iraq. She found herself in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed, after she fell from a truck during her training; some doctors said she would never walk again.

Depressed, Adams continued to attend veterans’ events and was inspired by the efforts of other wounded colleagues to keep up the struggle. Moreover, nine of her fellow trainees went on to Iraq as she was recovering from the accident, and they were all killed by a roadside bomb.

“So I really do feel like my life has purpose. God kept me here for a reason,” Adams told the Grand Rapids Legal News in 2012, when she won the Great Deeds Award as a law student at WMU-Cooley Law School.

She went on to be instrumental in forming the Veterans Legal Assistance Project. She received the Distinguished Law Student award as she graduated with a concentration in general litigation in 2014, as well as recognition by the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan.

One of things that Adams says has influenced her hard work on behalf of women veterans is that so often, they fail to have the kind of support from their spouses that she enjoys. She and her husband Joseph, whom she met in the service, have six children, including two sets of twins, 16 and 10. She has always acknowledged that she would not have been able to do what she does without that support.

In September of 2014, then-candidate Whitmer met Adams at an event in Muskegon Heights, and told her for all to hear, “You and I are going to work together someday.”

That was of course not a foregone conclusion, and Adams says she is deeply honored to lead the MVAA. “It’s just humbling to have been chosen. Very humbling,” she says. “I know that Governor Whitmer is very strong on making sure that the veterans in this state are taken care of, and that’s my goal too.”

The MVAA, which has only been around since 2013, “works to identify and break down barriers veterans face in employment, education, health care, and quality of life to make Michigan a great place for veterans and their families to call home. Services provided by the MVAA include the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund, Discharge Document Retrieval Service, and managing the Grand Rapids and D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans,” according to state sources.

The Grand Rapids home broke ground for a new, updated building in May, but it seems already to have turned around some of the problems that plagued it in years past. For that, Adams credits her predecessor, Judge James Redford, who is now at the Court of Appeals.

“We just had our audit results back, and there was only one financial issue they found, and it had already been remedied. And there have been no health findings,” she says.

The Veterans Home in Grand Rapids has just been chosen to receive almost $41,000,000 in funds from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs State Home Construction Grant Program In addition, the new State Veterans Home in Chesterfield Township (Metro Detroit) will receive over $46 million.

The MVAA is part of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which is headed by Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, the Adjutant General of the Michigan Army and Air National Guard.

The two groups and others serving veterans are working on a joint strategic plan. Adams reports both to the governor and to Maj. Gen. Rogers.

In the meantime, the MVAA has an excellent track record with its existing programs. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gave the MVAA a 2019 Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award for its initiative that advocates for incarcerated veterans, which was the first of its kind in the nation.

“One thing we’ll be focusing on is making sure we have transparency throughout this agency,” Adams says. “So that no matter what level of staff you are, you know what’s going on and can tell others.”

The MVAA’s website, www.michiganveterans.com, has an almost overwhelming, though well-organized, amount of information about services veterans can access, including a county-by-county list of the veterans benefits officers who can help make sense of all that is offered.

Still, Adams says, there is a lot of work to be done to make sure those who served their country are served in return. “About 18 percent of veterans in the state of Michigan get benefits. And we’re number 11 among the states for the number of veterans [635,000 in 2012]. So with our veterans service officers and with a focus on outreach, it’s my intention to increase that number of veterans with access to benefits greatly,” she pledges.

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