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Student Vet Fights Battle for Benefits

New App Would Cut Through Red Tape

David Tetreault, facing camera, works with his group

David Tetreault, facing camera, works with his DifferenceMaker group in the Veterans Services office.

11/13/2015
By David Perry

On his 18th birthday, David Tetreault got his orders: You’re headed to Afghanistan.

Give ‘em hell, kid.

He spent a year in Afghanistan’s western Farah Province with Charlie Company, a Massachusetts National Guardsman assigned to provide security for those working to restore infrastructure. 

Now, a senior in the Manning School of Business, he’s using the university’s DifferenceMaker program to help the flood of returning veterans cut through red tape and confusion. Working with a team of students whose experience crosses disciplines, the 23-year-old infantryman says he may have found his calling.  

Tetreault and his team (for now known as QRT, as in Quick Response Team, a military term) are designing a web platform to help veterans navigate paperwork to get the service-connected disability benefits they need from the Veterans Administration. 

“It has been incredible working with this team and everyone brings something to the table from their own area,” says Tetreault, who has nearly six years of military service under his belt (his contract ends in March).

His teammates include another active National Guardsman, and criminal justice major, Brian Holt, Terry Fox-Koor (Plastics Engineering), business major Maria Gottshall and Ann McGill, a professor of English as a second language.

Their final product will be designed to guide veterans through the application for disability benefits by asking a few clear, concise questions. 

“It’s awful,” says Tetreault, scrolling through the current online application. “I don’t even know all the acronyms. This is what needs fixing. All the time you hear politicians and candidates talking about the problem and how they’re going to fix it. But nobody does. There’s not a real sense of urgency. It’s just lip-service.”

Destined to Serve

A kid from West Warwick, R.I. with little financial means, Tetreault joined the Guard in March 2010 to pay for college. It didn’t sound outrageous when his guidance counselor suggested it.

“I’d always loved the image of the tough guy, the hero,” Tetreault says.

Tetreault has been doing his “own disability dance for over a year now,” seeking help for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Tetreault traces his issues back to an explosion that shook his convoy as it protected U.S. workers in Afghanistan.

“I was in the first truck, and an IED blew up under the one behind us,” he says. “Luckily, no one was killed. But I struggled with not seeing it coming, and not calling out before it happened. You try to make sure of everything you can. That’s what living behind a turret for a year does. You always want to know what’s going on.”

Crowds can bring stress and anxiousness. There is physical pain. He has a hard time sitting still.

“The thing is, I never saw myself as having a problem until Janine started asking me about it,” he says of Veterans Services Director Janine Wert.

Bound to Make a Difference

Finding a solution to the problem facing disabled veterans has given Tetreault a purpose and an outlet where he can apply his education, experience and skills. 

“I went through three years of school, always thinking, what am I going to do with my life? And then I heard Ralph Jordan (the Manning School of Business lecturer who specializes in management and team building) say, during a DifferenceMaker event, ‘If you know of a problem, bring it forward.’

“And I thought, there are so many veterans coming back, not getting their disability benefits in a timely way. I had seen it through a roommate who waited 1.5 years to even get an evaluation.”

“David is an amazing guy,” Wert says. “He was deployed at 18, has been in leadership positions with his unit, has been president of our Student Veterans Organization, and is vice president now. He’s worked in our office for three years, diligently. He’s a good leader and follows through on things.”

Wert helps returning vets with a multitude of issues, but getting them services is a priority.

“I can help them,” she says, “But only one at a time, and there’s only one of me.”

“On top of that, if you have PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) it can seem nearly impossible just to navigate the stuff that’s on there. What David is talking about is a reasonable answer that is really needed,” says Wert. “It’s not anything anyone has done yet that I know of and David is talking about doing this at no charge.” 

“We just want to give people the platform to get better,” says Tetreault.