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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Homeless, Downcast Veteran Turns Life Around with VA Support

January 25, 2011


Avery with employee Johnson

"The VA helped me push the restart button," said Air Force Veteran Oliver L. Avery, III with Environmental Management Service Housekeeping Aid Elizabeth Johnson. "I give all the credit for where I am today to the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. The staff there saved my life." Today, Avery is the assistant chief of the Environmental Management Service at the Loch Raven VA Community Living & Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

For 30 long, agonizing years, Air Force Veteran Oliver L. Avery, III abused alcohol to “survive life’s challenges.” In 2003, he found himself twice divorced, homeless, desperate, and ready for a change.

“I embraced recovery and haven’t looked back,” said Avery. “I give all the credit for where I am today to the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. The staff there saved my life.” 

In March 2003, Avery entered the Vocational Rehabilitation Transitional Work Experience (TWE) Program and the Substance Dependence Treatment (SDTP) Program at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.
These programs assist Veterans recover from drug and alcohol dependence through comprehensive treatment which may include detoxification; case management; addiction education; relapse prevention skill training; support groups; urine, drug and alcohol screens; social work services; health screening; referrals for medical care and/or vocational rehabilitation; and psychiatric assessment and care. Levels of care include partial hospitalization; day and night-time schedules for low intensity and aftercare, and alumni groups. The goal is for Veterans to reach their highest level of vocational productivity.

Veterans are provided vocational counseling, work therapy, job readiness training, and employment search assistance. Supported Employment Services are available to Veterans with severe mental illnesses.

“The VA helped me push the restart button. While in the Voc Rehab Program, I began work as a housekeeping aid, and then became a medical supply technician,” said Avery. “The job was what I needed to get back on my feet and into the workforce, plus I enjoyed working with fellow Veterans. It was a safe environment for me to heal.”

The VA’s Compensated Work Therapy programs were established in the 1950s. Veterans receive a certificate documenting their proficiency in hospital linen processing or general housekeeping. Veterans with the desire to develop more advanced skills receive classroom and on-the-job training in hospital safety; patient room cleaning; equipment operation; proper handling of biohazard trash; customer service standards; infection control; special procedures for transporting wheelchair and stretcher patients; techniques to clean critical care areas such as surgical suites, spinal cord units, and nursing home areas; shipping and receiving; medical supply; grounds keeping; food service; or wheelchair repair.

“The goals of the program are very progressive. They include structured vocational evaluations, learning to follow work schedules, working with others, and accepting supervision,” said Clarence Mitchell, Vocational Rehabilitation specialist. “Going back to work reduces psychiatric and physical symptoms, improves relapse prevention skills and self-esteem.”

With restored hope and an improved quality of life, Avery gradually progressed in his career. In 2004, he became a full-time medical supply technician and attained three certifications. After three years, he was promoted to a program support clerk to enhance his customer skills, and then to an assistant hospital housekeeping intern. In 2007 at age 51, Avery graduated from the VISN 5 Emerging VA Leadership Program and completed his bachelor’s degree in health administration.

Recently, Avery was selected to attend the VA’s year-long Leadership Development Institute, a program designed to enhance leadership skills of individuals with recognized potential for higher level leadership positions. Today, he is the assistant chief of the Environmental Management Service at the 120-bed Loch Raven VA Community Living & Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

“My job is to honor a person’s dignity and self-esteem; but at the same time, help someone with psychosocial challenges walk the line between independence and recovery,” said Mitchell. “Mr. Avery is a true success story and should give other Veterans hope that they, too, can overcome their struggles.” 

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Awarded re-designation for Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Services in 2008, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center serves as the primary health care provider for more than 120,000 veterans in southeast Texas. Veterans from around the country are referred to the MEDVAMC for specialized diagnostic care, radiation therapy, surgery, and medical treatment including cardiovascular surgery, gastrointestinal endoscopy, nuclear medicine, ophthalmology, and treatment of spinal cord injury and diseases. The MEDVAMC is home to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic; Network Polytrauma Center; an award-winning Cardiac and General Surgery Program; Liver Transplant Center; VA Epilepsy and Cancer Centers of Excellence; VA Substance Abuse Disorder Quality Enhancement Research Initiative; Health Services Research & Development Center of Excellence; VA Rehabilitation Research of Excellence focusing on mild to moderate traumatic brain injury; Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center; and one of the VA’s six Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Centers. Including the outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Galveston, Houston, Lufkin, and Richmond, MEDVAMC outpatient clinics logged more than one million outpatient visits in fiscal year 2010. For the latest news releases and information about the MEDVAMC, visit