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An Advocate for Veterans

John S. Walker, resident advocate at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland.
by Mark Olsen, New Jersey National Guard
Photography by Mark Olsen

“This is a gift,” said John S. Walker.

The gift that Walker refers to is serving as the resident advocate at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland.

A typical day for Walker begins with making rounds in the home’s resident neighborhoods, conversing, and interacting with residents and their family members. Walker spends an entire day in each neighborhood, immersing himself in the day-to-day lives of the residents.

“We have PHDs, we have MDs; we have highly educated and accomplished people here,” he said. “It’s important to sit down and listen to residents talk amongst one another; hearing the person, getting to see the person, not the resident, but the individual.”

That listening also gives Walker greater insight into the Vineland residents.

“I get history beyond the books; stories that I would have never thought to even ask questions about,” he said. “I hear the struggles of a military member; I hear the struggles of a woman, during the time when we were not as considerate about women in the service. I hear the man of color who had to navigate being a serviceman and, though there were sometimes when things were not fair, when they tell the story, it’s never the main focus, it’s about their service to their country.”

“Their strength and resiliency is a standard for all of us to pay close attention to,” Walker said.

This is not the first time Walker has served at Vineland.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker, a medic with the 108th Medical Group, served as first sergeant to a group of Airmen from the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108th Wing and 177th Fighter Wing who assisted the Vineland staff with COVID-19 rapid testing, N95 mask fit tests, and life enrichment for residents from September 2020 to June 2021. As the first sergeant, he ensured the readiness, health, morale, and welfare of the Airmen serving at the home.

“I worked in life enrichment,” he said. “They did a stellar job at creating environments where family members could visit with their loved ones in a safe environment.”

Walker answered phones, maintained files, coordinated family visits, explained visitation policy and infection control guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My time there as a Guardsman was so enjoyable—the team, the residents, this community is so warm and welcoming,” said Walker. “I thought to myself, if there was ever an opportunity to be a part of this team that I would take advantage of it.”

That opportunity presented itself eight months later when the resident advocate position became available at the home.

“Resident advocates allow the residents to express their concerns to an unbiased individual who has direct reporting responsibilities to the Division of Veterans’ Healthcare Services to ensure that all concerns are being addressed appropriately and in a timely manner,” said Rochelle Guglielmo, the director of Veterans’ Healthcare Services at the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Walker’s position was created by a bill that was approved by the New Jersey Senate and General Assembly Sept. 16, 2021. Through the bill, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs established a resident advocate at each of the State’s Veterans’ Memorial Homes. While Walker works with Allyson Bailey, the Vineland CEO, he reports directly to Guglielmo.

“The Resident Advocate position adds another layer of resident advocacy that will assist us in ensuring care of the highest quality continues to be provided in our home to our resident population,” said Bailey.

The resident advocate interacts daily with residents to identify issues or concerns and elevates them as needed to the home’s CEO and division director, if resolution is unable to be achieved at his level.

“My job here is somewhere between a first sergeant and a chaplain,” said Walker. “My experience through hospital chaplaincy, clinical pastoral education, and training helped prepare me for this.”

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.