Local veteran student chosen for D.C. conference

Joe Sacco, a Navy veteran and an Idaho National Laboratory information security employee, will attend a national veteran’s conference in Washington, D.C., in March. In his application to attend the conference, Sacco outlined a proposal for mental health professional internships at VA hospitals. Courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory.

Joe Sacco’s tenure with the U.S. Navy ended in 2015, but his veteran advocacy efforts have only strengthened.

The Idaho National Laboratory information security employee was chosen several weeks ago to be a legislative fellow for the Student Veterans of America, a Veterans of Foreign Wars partner organization.

Sacco will travel to Washington, D.C., in March to speak with lawmakers regarding a proposal to improve veteran mental health services.

“Obviously, being a veteran, it’s an important cause for me — it’s one of the areas I think I can be of the most benefit,” Sacco said. “I’ve been looking for a couple years for a way to make an impact and help the veteran community, and this is the first big opportunity I have to do that.”

Sacco, 30, graduated from Idaho Falls High School before joining the Navy.

During his nine-plus years in the Navy, Sacco served at duty stations in Maryland and Hawaii, as well as on a cruiser off the coast of San Diego. He started to work at the lab four months after an honorable discharge.

Sacco, who earned a bachelor’s degree in homeland security from American Military University, also is pursuing a master’s in public administration at Idaho State University’s Idaho Falls campus.

He applied for the Student Veterans of America fellowship in October. The application included a 400-word essay that seized on one of four possible focal points mandated by the competition: the future of Veterans Affairs health care.

Sacco’s essay outlined a proposal for mental health professional internships at VA hospitals. After spending time at such hospitals, professionals could then return to their communities — possibly in rural, underserved areas — with better expertise in working with veterans suffering the consequences of deployment.

The idea grew out of conversations Sacco had with his wife, Katie, who is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling, as well as the lack of VA resources offered in eastern Idaho. The nearest VA hospital is in Salt Lake City.

“Veterans have different experiences than most people because of combat-related reasons,” Sacco said. “And especially in rural areas there’s a lack of mental health care and access to VA facilities. So my proposal is aimed to close that gap where there’s less availability and give civilian mental health care professionals an idea of how to approach the veteran community.”

Sacco, among 10 student veterans accepted for the legislative fellowship, has some work to do.

Leading up to March, he will expand his proposal into a four- to six-page “white paper” documenting the need for improved veteran’s mental health care services. Sacco also has to write a community action plan to implement after he returns from Washington.

From March 4 through March 9, Sacco will participate in the VFW National Legislative Conference with hundreds of other members of the same organization.

Sacco and other fellows also will meet with a congressional delegation to share their veteran-related agendas, and they will attend a joint Committee on Veterans Affairs session.

After returning, Sacco will attempt to implement his community action plan. Though he’s still figuring out specific plan attributes, Sacco plans to meet with Idaho’s congressional delegation in order to spur change.

“There’s been a lot of stories about the veteran community and how hard it is for them. For me to be able to do this is awesome,” Sacco said. “Basically, to garner some support for them is the overall aim.”

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.