Local group reaches out to help vets from The Meadville Tribune on Vimeo.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: Group helps returning veterans facing tough times (originally published in The Meadville Tribune Wednesday, February 18, 2009)
Did you know?
Not since the Vietnam War have there been as many Crawford Countians serving on active duty than there are now.
Thirty-six years ago Phil Davis learned that a war isn’t over just because you come home.
Today he’s on a mission to ensure that others don’t have to struggle through this hard lesson yet again.
Drafted into Vietnam right after graduating from Meadville Area Senior High School in 1970, Davis served two combat tours with the Army Air Calvary before stepping on a punji stick.
The wound became infected and eventually gangrene set in. He was sent back to the states, and after three months in the hospital he was back on the streets of Meadville.
“I came home alone” to a nation with a faltering economy and a public largely tired and ashamed of the war, Davis recalled.
“Things had changed while I was gone and the guys I used to hang out with weren’t around anymore,” he said. “I wandered around looking for a job. I got into drinking and I hated everybody because they didn’t understand (what it was like to have served in Vietnam). And I didn’t talk to anybody because I didn’t trust anyone,” he said. “You wouldn’t have liked me back then.”
Isolated, angry and confused, Davis was several steps down a path that claimed so many lives even after the guns fell silent.
Eventually, Davis lucked into some help in a form he could accept. He became friends with a local Vietnam veteran who told him about a group of Vietnam veterans that met regularly at the Crawford County Courthouse to share fellowship and do what they could to help other veterans in need. Davis’ buddy suggested he get involved. “He saw that I needed to be with other veterans,” Davis recalled. For a time, Davis resisted, but his buddy wouldn’t let up. Eventually Davis went down to the courthouse. The move may well have saved his life.“We had a lot in common,” Davis said of the men in the group. “We told our stories and started feeling better about ourselves.”
They also got organized as that initial group eventually led to the founding of the Meadville-based Veterans of the Vietnam War Inc. Jack Greer Memorial Post 52. Davis is one of the charter members.
Over the years the post, which accepts veterans of any era as well as civilians as members, has helped countless veterans and taken on prominent roles in the county. It was a key organizer in fundraising for the Crawford County Veterans Memorial; it brought the Moving Wall, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans National Memorial, to the county; it has assumed the organization of the county’s annual POW/MIA vigil and Ride for Freedom; it is a major sponsor of Project Support Our Troops, which has sent about 100 goodies boxes a month to troops overseas since 2000; and it provides assistance to area charities.
Lately, however, some calls to the post have Davis and its members launching a whole new effort.
“We just don’t want history to repeat itself,” Davis explains.
He and other post members have started hearing from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. In many cases, the stories sound all too familiar.
Many of these veterans have been discharged from their units to come home alone. They face difficult prospects in the current economy and, because many of them have served on several tours, family and community dynamics have changed while they were gone. Much of America disapproves of the wars they were called to serve in. They don’t have a formal organization locally under which to group, leaving many isolated. Some don’t seem to understand where to get help and others resist seeking help, laboring under the old stigma that doing so is a sign of weakness or failure.“If I know of a handful in Meadville, how many of them are there out there?” asks Davis. “They need to have somebody to talk to that they know will get them the help they need.”
As a result, the post is reaching out in an effort that will take its first public form Saturday at the Downtown Mall in Meadville. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. the post will have a booth at the Crawford County Community Trade Show.
The message to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families is simple, Davis said. “We are not going to prod you to talk and we are not going to ridicule you. You are welcome here whether or not you join. If nothing else we want to be a contact point” that can point these veterans to formal and informal help available across the region.
The post doesn’t serve alcohol, and its events are family-friendly, said Davis.
“This is what we do,” he said, explaining that the organization’s slogan is “People who care.”
Pat Bywater can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their families can learn more about the Meadville-based Veterans of the Vietnam War Inc. Jack Greer Memorial Post 52 by contacting its Home Association vice president, Phil Davis, at 336-4654, 282-9737 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The post, located at 13240 Dunham Road, has its formal meeting the third Monday of the month at 7 p.m. and it has dinners every Friday night.
HELP IS OUT THERE: Post-deployment programs help returning vets deal with physical and mental wounds (originally published in The Meadville Tribune Friday, February 20, 2009)
ERIE — The message from the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center is simple, but its impact on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, their families and their communities will be far reaching.
“When you come here we have a program set up for you with people who understand where you’ve been,” explains Jim Miller, manager of the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom Program.
In recognition of the fact that each conflict leaves behind a distinct set of physical and mental wounds, and that help is often most easily accepted from people who have served in those conflicts, VA Medical Centers like Erie have established OEF/OIF programs and are working to staff them with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Miller is a perfect example of this movement in action. The Erie native’s 20 years as an Army mental health officer included time in Afghanistan. In addition, the program’s physician assistant is a veteran of Iraq.
Their presence is a key plus in reaching out to and quickly and efficiently addressing the needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans across the region. It also can help those veterans feel comfortable as they seek help.
The shared history “carries of a lot of weight,” said Miller. “You develop a relationship faster and that’s important in ensuring the timeliness of care.” Already a little more than 1,100 veterans from the medical center’s coverage area — Crawford, Erie, Venango, Warren, McKean and Ashtabula, Ohio, counties — are receiving care through the program, and that number is expected to rise as National Guard troops from this region have been called up and are currently serving a tour in Iraq.
The program helps veterans through its Post-Deployment Case Team, a group of specialists trained to recognize and address physical and mental wounds unique to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each veteran is assigned a medical doctor, a behavioral health specialist and a case manager who conduct an evaluation. Then the team members meet to discuss the results. If additional care is needed, the veteran may be assigned to the Polytrauma Clinic, which handles physical injuries, or to counseling. Depending on the veteran’s needs, this help may be provided at the Erie medical center or at one of the county clinics in the center’s coverage area. The team then follows the veteran through his or her ongoing treatment.
In order to ensure veterans are aware of the program, the medical center has established an outreach program that has personnel meeting with military units from the area before and after going overseas. Families are also included in these meetings. In addition, staff members attempt to contact every veteran known to the program in person or by phone at least once a year. Representatives of the program also do outreach with clubs, organizations and at events. This Saturday, for example, representatives of the program will be at the Downtown Mall in Meadville from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the Crawford County Community Trade Show.
Outreach at such events is key because many veterans returning to the area are discharged from their units elsewhere and come home alone. The medical center has no way of tracking these individuals, so unless they make themselves known, the center’s representatives have no way of knowing they are in the community.
The outreach efforts mark a major change in how Veterans Affairs does business, according to Rich Moore, a Vietnam-era veteran who is staff assistant to the director for special programs at the Erie medical center.
When Moore left the service decades ago, “I was given very little information about VA benefits. The rest was simply picked up by luck,” he said. “Today there is a world of difference. The VA is very active in getting out there and telling veterans about their benefits.”
Pat Bywater can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
You can go
Veterans can learn more about their federal Veterans Affairs benefits and the services available through the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center and its county clinics Saturday at the Downtown Mall in Meadville. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. the VA will have a booth at the Crawford County Community Trade Show.
To learn more about the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom Program at the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center, call (814) 868-8661 or (800) 274-8387 and ask for Jim Miller or Rich Moore.
Warning signs to watch for
It can be hard for family members and even soldiers themselves to determine if a veteran needs help with mental health issues.
“Expect there is going to be a period of readjustment” when a soldier returns from deployment, explains Jim Miller, manager of the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom Program at the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “You can expect some of it, but then it should subside.”
Signs to watch for include increased alcohol consumption, inability to sleep, becoming isolated and becoming irritable.
There is still for many a stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, Miller said, and a general attitude among many in the military that they should tough it out through any problems. As a result, some soldiers will avoid seeking help. “It doesn’t always have to be professional help,” explained Miller, noting that in some cases talking through things with fellow veterans, as opposed to mental health professionals, can be very therapeutic.
Veterans, and even their family members, with concerns or questions about these issues are encouraged to contact Miller.