Saturday, November 11, 2017
Ten Ways to Support Our Veterans (more than a free meal at Applebee's)
Ahhh...Veterans Day. The day we set aside to thank the men and women who died protecting our freedom.
No. Wait. That's Memorial Day.
Ahhh...Veterans Day. The day we set aside to thank the men and women who are serving our country.
No. Wait. That's Armed Forces Day.
Ahhh...Veterans Days. The day we set aside to thank...our veterans?
As I found out this week when I posed a seemingly harmless question to Facebookland, there are many ways to define a veteran. And how you define it dictates who you spend this day thanking.
Webster's definition: A person who has had long service or experience in an occupation.
Veterans Administration definition: For the purpose of VA health services and benefits, a person who served in the active military service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.
The original definition of Veterans Day: Originally Armistice Day, 11/11 was meant to celebrate the end of WWI and to honor the veterans who served in that war, whether they were still active or not. But as more wars were waged, in an attempt to be more inclusive, the holiday was changed to include all veterans from all wars.
Many active duty Servicemembers' definition: Any Servicemember who has been deployed to a combat zone is a veteran of that conflict. Or anyone who has received a DD-214 form is a veteran. Or anyone who has 180 days of active duty service, not including Basic Training or AIT.
Many other active duty Servicemembers' definition: See Veterans Administration definition.
So, yeah...there some differences in opinion and there are many individuals who feel quite strongly about who gets to claim the title of veteran. For the VA, it is understandably black and white. But for everyone else? There are at least 50 shades of gray.
Although I speak the military language fairly fluently, I would readily admit that until 3 days ago, I was like most of you. I tried not to thank anyone living on Memorial Day. I gave a shout-out to our Servicemembers (and the Founding Fathers, of course...Viva la George Washington!) on the 4th of July and I thanked pretty much everyone who was or is in the military on Veterans Day. Because I believe that if you have experience in an occupation or have been deployed to a conflict or are retired/discharged, you are a veteran. So, that applies to pretty much every Servicemember I know. But...I'm willing to concede that this is the only day that retired/discharged veterans get to shine some light on the problems they are plagued by and the ways we can help. So, on Armed Forces Day, I'll be back with a slew of ways we can support our active duty Servicemembers.
First and foremost, I believe this country goes about throwing good Servicemembers after bad wars at an alarming rate. If there is a need for deployment then we must also accept the obligation to provide not just adequate but excellent care after deployment. That's physical healthcare, mental healthcare, job placement, any kind of social services that Servicemember might have. And what we need to start recognizing is that a Servicemember deployed to a conflict 4 or 5 or 6 times is going to have a lot more needs than a civilian who worked for state government for 35 years. Even if he/she never saw someone get blown to bits, even if he/she never lost a limb, even if he/she was only deployed for 4 or 6 months at a time. And the military maintains a decent support structure for Servicemembers, as long as they are active. But when they are retired or discharged, they take their number at the VA and wait. After spending almost 3 weeks watching Ken Burns' and Lynn Novack's documentary on the Vietnam War, I feel many things, but mostly disappointment that we didn't learn from that shameful mistake. We may not be spitting on veterans in the street anymore, but that's only because we are simply ignoring them now. We are ignoring their mortality rates, their homeless rates, their alcohol and drug abuse rates. I consciously did not join the military because war and violent death scare the crap out of me. But as I am running away, others are running to it and when they come back, broken and messy, we can't punish them for doing something we wouldn't.
So, I am listing ways that we can all help the veterans of today, which will also help the veterans of tomorrow. There are, literally, thousands of ways for Americans to support veterans...from simply waving flags as the VFW passes by during the Memorial Day parade to regularly visiting nursing homes that care for aging veterans and everything in between. These are just the ones that either I or friends have first-hand knowledge of. I encourage everyone who has an opportunity to add, to please do so in the blog comments or Facebook comments.
1. Socks for Vets: This Pennsylvania-based organization was first brought to my attention by one of the spouses in our unit. Their mission is to collect new socks, cards/stuffed animals/sugar-free candy for the amputees and cards for distribution at the Veteran's Home each month. The founder, a 9th grade military child named Cavan, determines a different theme each month and then collects donations based on that theme. Their goal is to keep veterans in the nursing home happy and comfortable as they live out their days. You can read more about them on their Facebook page, Socks for Vets.
2. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2): This is the official U.S. Army program that assists and advocates for severely wounded, ill and injured Soldiers, veterans and their families, wherever they are located, regardless of military status. Again, I heard about this program from a fellow Army wife. When a Servicemember enters into the program, he/she is assigned an advocate to help them navigate the Wounded Warrior Lifecycle. Essentially, they are easing the transition from military life to civilian life after a traumatic injury or illness. By contacting the advocate in your area, you can ask to receive their emails, which often offers suggestions for ways you can support local veterans. For more information about the program and to find your area advocate's information, check their website.
3. Presents for Patriots: A timely addition considering the holidays are upon us, Presents for Patriots makes it possible for families of wounded Servicemembers to have food on the table and gifts under the tree at Christmas. They team up with the Freedom Alliance and you can read about them here. While I do not have first-hand experience with this program, it was one of the suggested ways to support wounded warriors from AW2.
4. Team RWB: I have only met volunteers from this organization at a festival while we were stationed at Ft. Leavenworth. I gave them my email with every intention of getting involved, but 11 months at a duty station goes by fast and before I knew it, it was time to move again. Also, it seemed like the chapter was always getting together for runs. I'm not a runner anymore. I'm like a brisk walker, bike rider and occasional hiker. Team RWB (Team Red, White and Blue in case you hadn't put that together yet) has a clear and succinct mission: To enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. So, the Leavenworth chapter liked to get their veterans together to run. But if the only reason you are running is because there's a bear chasing you, don't despair. Contact your local chapter anyway and see what other ways you can get involved. I'm all for a hike down a flat part of the Appalachian Trail followed by a potluck dinner and maybe that's a thing where you are, too. You can find your local chapter here.
5. Join an Elks Lodge: While the VFW and American Legion are only open to veterans (and specifically veterans of foreign wars for the VFW), the Elks is open to anyone who is an American citizen, over the age of 21, not convicted of a felony, not a communist and believes in God. Once you're in, a whole host of new opportunities to serve veterans, alongside your fellow Elks, will most likely become available to you. And if you are thinking to yourself, "That sounds like a bunch of old, white men sitting around drinking beer and watching baseball," I will tell you that I went to my first Elks lodge as the guest of my sorority sister (who is NOT an old, white man, by the way). She is extremely active in her Elks lodge in California, which provides for veterans and their families at Christmas, as well as conducts activities to support them throughout the year. The national Elks veterans committee mission statement reads, "So long as there are veterans, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will never forget them." Fun fact about the Elks: when the symbol was voted on by the first members in 1868, they were choosing between the elk and the buffalo. It was 8-7, in favor of the elk. You can find your local chapter here.
6. Visit the nursing homes: Yeah, I get it. Nursing homes are usually musty, depressing places where shells of humans slump over a table and drool into their mashed potatoes. That is really not your thing. It ain't mine, either. But mission work with our church has taken us to the local nursing home twice in the past year and each time it is unexpectedly rewarding. This past visit was to paint pumpkins with the residents. I ended up sitting next to the oldest member of our church, at a not-yet-ripe 102. Granted, she asked 4 times in 10 minutes if she got to keep her pumpkin and every time I said, "YES!" she radiated with renewed excitement, I also got to hear about how she was born just after midnight on New Year's Day during a terrible snow storm in Pennsylvania. And how she grew up Lutheran but her husband was a Moravian so she "converted". Also, I don't have any grandparents left and I didn't appreciate the ones I had when I had them, so this is like a second chance for me. So, call up the local nursing home or assisted living residence and find out if they have any veterans living among them. I bet they do. I bet they would love a visit or a card made by your kid!
7. Volunteer with the Veterans History Project by the Library of Congress: This was passed on to me by another fellow Army wife who is just as obsessed with living history as I am (and in the under-60 crowd, that's hard to come by). This project simply requires you to download the Veterans History Project Field Kit, prepare for the interview with the veteran, conduct the interview and then upload it to the Library of Congress. And what I've learned from 6 months as a staff writer of our local magazine is that interviewing someone is no more than having a conversation where you ask most of the questions. If you are curious at all, you will be fabulous at this. Plus, it preserves a veteran's memories for the future generations that will never have a chance to hear them in person. (And if Ken Burns has taught me anything, it's that he is a national treasure who will be sorely missed when he's gone.) You can download the kit and get started here.
8. Volunteer with the VFW and the American Legion: One of the suggestions offered on my Facebook post was to help organize a reunion for veterans of combat. The fellow Army wife and veteran who suggested it was able to participate in a reunion organized by the local VFW and it made a profound impact on her life. Just having the time to reconnect and socialize with the other veterans she had served in combat with flooded her with appreciation for the opportunity. I know better than some how daunting it is to be a civilian on the cusp of the military world. So many acronyms, so much uncertainty. If cold-calling a VFW or American Legion post feels overwhelming and something you will probably never work up the courage to do, try contacting one of the other organizations (like Team RWB or the Elks) instead. Most likely, you will team up with veterans, active duty Servicemembers or their families somewhere along the way and they will help make volunteering for veterans accessible and enjoyable!
9. Read this article by Charity Navigator: Support Veterans and Active Duty Servicemembers
10. Read this article by The Street: 7 Charities That Actually Help Veterans Beyond Veterans Day and pay special attention to The Fisher House and Operation Homefront.
Will volunteering with these organizations allow you to have some effect on the darkest aspects of many veterans' lives? Will you find them homes? Get them off drugs and alcohol? Cure their PTSD? Nope, it will not. But it will weave a web of love and support that may encourage them to seek the help they need. And if they are simply aging, it will show them that they are not forgotten. We all have causes that are close to our heart...organizations that have touched our lives and we will always support. But I feel like supporting America's veterans is a cause that crosses all ages, incomes, genders, races. Whatever we are doing right this very minute, we are free to do it because someone fought for that right. Now we must support them. You don't have reach way out of your comfort zone. Find where your interests overlap with a veteran's needs and focus your efforts there. Everyone will be the better for it. I will be the first to admit that our family has not walked the talk that's in this blog post. But when I write a follow-up on 11/11/2018, we will have found some way to support our veterans and I hope you have, too.
And to all of our country's veterans, HAPPY VETERANS DAY and thank you for your service and your sacrifice. Freedom is not free.