U.S. Army Veteran overcomes life of adversity, lands dream job a VA social worker

U.S. Army Combat Veteran and Bay Pines VA Social Worker Ilya Berler’s unique path to employment with VA started more than 17 years ago when he left Eastern Europe with his father and immigrated to the United States.

Bay Pines VAHCS Office of Public Affairs Tuesday, April 11, 2017

For those who work with and know Ilya Berler, they all agree he is not what some would call a “typical social worker.” Standing nearly six feet tall with partially styled brown hair and youthful appearance, the soft-spoken U.S. Army Veteran projects a stoic, easygoing and driven personality all in one.

As a full-time social worker with the Bay Pines VA for the last four years, he uses his personality and life experiences to help Veterans enrolled for VA health care services.

On most days, Ilya is out of the office and on the road assisting homeless Veterans with permanent housing or visiting young, disabled Veterans and their caregivers to ensure their health care services are coordinated appropriately. There is no place he would rather be.

“When I was hired by the VA, I was ecstatic,” he said. “I knew it was the right place for me to work and help others like the VA helped me. The job also validated everything I had done to get to that point in my life – the challenges, adversity, injuries – it was a dream come true.”

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Ilya’s journey that would ultimately lead to a professional career as a social worker and job with VA started 17 years ago in a small town in Eastern Europe when he was 12-years-old.

“My dad told me to pack my bags,” he said. “There was no warning, and I didn’t ask questions. I just did what I was told.”

Ilya’s father had made a decision on behalf of the family to enter refugee status and begin the immigration process to the United States from Eastern Europe – a move he hoped would provide a better future for his son.

“I just remember the process being extremely long and complicated,” Ilya said reflecting on his childhood. “It was something that I just did, and there was very little time to ask questions. We just packed our bags and started the process.”

The “process” would take more than two years to complete as Ilya, and his father completed a series of interviews, screenings, more interviews and a lot of waiting. Finally, in 1992, Ilya and his father settled in St. Paul, Minn.

To support the small family of two, his father took on various jobs like security and maintenance. They also received assistance from community agencies and families.

For young Ilya, the prospect of starting a new life in the U.S. was scary and exciting at the same time. He did not know what to expect. Language and cultural differences were the most challenging.

“Imagine moving to a new place where everything is strange, no one can understand you, and you can’t understand them,” he said. “Learning a new language and adapting to a new way of life is not something you can learn in a day – calling that a challenge is an understatement.”

Over the next few years, Ilya adapted and became proficient in the English language through school. Then, in 1997, Ilya and his father became U.S. citizens. After years of struggle and adversity, they could now officially call the U.S. their home.

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About a year after becoming a citizen and shortly after his 20th birthday in 1998, Ilya joined the U.S. Army Reserves as a logistics specialist – a commitment that took him away from home one weekend a month, and sometimes up to two weeks for more extensive training exercises.

“At that time in my life, I had it in my mind that I wanted to serve in the military,” he explained. “Military service runs in my family. It was my turn to serve…so I did.”

Over the next three years, he honorably completed his time as a reservist and entered Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) status – a designation given to soldiers still under contract who no longer have an obligation to participate in training actively but can be called back to reserve or active duty.

Then, in 2004, certified mail arrived at his doorstep. It was from the U.S. Army. He quickly realized he was reading mobilization orders and would soon be deploying to combat in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I was pretty excited,” he said. “I was considering going active around that time anyway. The orders simplified things.”

Soon, Ilya was on a plane to Fort Jackson, S.C., then Fort Dix, N.J., and finally Kuwait where he was assigned to a convoy security team responsible for protecting large military supply convoys in and out of Iraq.

For the next ten months, Ilya and other members of his unit completed missions. Then, about eight weeks before they were scheduled to return home, he was thrown from his position on a gunner’s turret after his Humvee driver responded to an enemy threat.

Berler sustained serve injuries due to the fall and was medically evacuated first to Germany, and then Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He completed his recovery in Fort Bragg, N.C. before returning home to St. Paul in 2006. It took nearly five months for him to recover from his injuries.

Ilya Berler pictured in 2006 while deployed with the U.S. Army in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom

At home, he continued to struggle with lasting effects of his wounds both physically and emotionally. His most significant struggles were dealing with symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) diagnoses.

“I had a lot of problems concentrating…with cognition and memory,” Berler said. “I had anxiety and tended to isolate myself from others, even close family members. That was about the same time I reached out to the VA for help.”

Berler enrolled for VA health care services at the Minneapolis VA Healthcare System and also decided to go college using the Post 9/11 GI Bill. His goal was to become a social worker.

Over the next five years, Berler committed himself to his studies but not without personal struggles.

“To get through everything, I had to dedicate myself only to school,” he explained. “At times, because of my TBI, I doubted myself. I knew the only way that I could eventually get my degree was to put everything I had into studying.”

And so he did. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University 2009, he went on to earn his master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota in 2011.

“When I graduated, I finally felt like I had a real future. It was such a huge personal achievement for me,” he said. “I worked so hard for so long and finally could take a step back and be proud of myself.”

Shortly after graduation, he landed a job with a non-profit social service organization in Jacksonville, Fla. One year after that, he applied for and was hired by the Bay Pines VAHCS to support the organization’s Homeless Veterans Program.

“I get inspiration from my work with Veterans. When I share my story, I think it gives a lot of them hope. I can feel the synergy,” said Berler. “Being here, doing this job is where I am supposed to be.”

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Ilya is one of about 200 social workers employed with the Bay Pines VAHCS who provide a valuable service to Veterans and families across southwest Florida. They are found in virtually all program areas and settings within the healthcare system and are available to assist with a wide variety of patient care and treatment concerns.

The overall goal of social work is to help Veterans function at the highest level in the community, promoting their health and well-being, strengthening family relationships and restoring individuals. Social Work Service is responsible for helping patients and families cope with the crisis or illness by ensuring continuity of care through the admission, evaluation, treatment and follow-up process.

Each social worker employed by the Bay Pines VAHCS has a master’s degree in social work. All are expected to have a license as a clinical social worker. Also, many have earned membership in the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) administered by the National Association of Social Workers.

To learn more about the Bay Pines VAHCS Social Work Service visit www.baypines.va.gov/services/Social_Work_Services.asp, or ask to speak with your assigned Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT) social worker.

About Jeff Cavanagh

Jeff Cavanagh spent his freshman year at St. Petersburg Junior College back in the early 70s before enlisting in the United States Navy. Soon after, he attended Jacksonville University on a Navy ROTC scholarship. After college, he was commissioned and became a qualified Surface Warfare Officer spending the next 22 years honing his skills as a ship-handler and expert recruiter before retiring in 1994. Jeff expresses a deep sense of pride in St. Petersburg College due to connections that go back many years. His father, Tom Cavanagh, was a career Air Force fighter pilot and combat veteran who taught Geography and Western Civilization at St. Petersburg Junior College in the 60’s and 70’s.

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