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On Purpose, Mission and Reform

Transitions & Sustainment
Transitions & Sustainment
March 1, 2024
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“If we don’t get this plane off the ground in the next 10 minutes, there is a SEAL team that might not make it out,” the AC-130 Specter Gunship pilot. My fingers were numb and my hands tremored from the cold as I struggled to attach a fitting to an oxygen line above the 105MM cannon. This was November of 2001, only days after our arrival to Karshi-Khanabad Airbase, Uzbekistan. The base was better known as K2, but today it’s known as the base with the “Toxic Black Goo,” which poisoned 15,000+ troops with yellow cake uranium, chemical weapons and rocket propellant — though we wouldn’t learn of our poisoning until 2019. 

Then, I was a 20 year-old Air Force aircraft electrical and environmental systems technician, holding the almighty rank of E-2, Airman. I deployed to K2 again a few years later. My last trip overseas was to Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan in the spring of 2005, but all three tours were with the Air Force Special Operation Command’s Spectre Gunships. All were in direct support of the special forces and combat arms communities. Our culture reflected the mission, and the challenges outlined above stitched us together and gave us a shared experience with the Vietnam veterans in ways we couldn’t have imagined, but we wouldn’t know this for years to come. 

In September of 2005, while still on terminal leave and less than six months after returning from Afghanistan, I got into my car after leaving my first community college class. Before I could turn the ignition, I found myself staring at my steering wheel in a trance. “This can’t be it. They must have a plan for me. Right?” I thought to myself. In those short few moments, I realized the military did not have a plan for me, or any anyone else when our uniforms came off. This was my transition to civilian life. 

I told everyone I was going to college, and I was — in small thanks to the Montgomery GI Bill — but I was the first in my family to do so. Coming from an excavating family, I didn’t have a clue what to study or what a “professional” career could look like, let alone the path towards getting one. Then I had an idea, after thinking about my grandfather and his membership in the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), I thought to myself: “I know, the VFW will know what to do with me!” 

Minutes later, I found the cold dark blue waters of Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay over my right shoulder. Upon having my steering wheel epiphany, I drove directly from North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan, around the bay, to the VFW hall I’d visited as a kid for a cousin’s wedding. This was the VFW Post my grandfather was a member of after earning his eligibility for fighting in the Ardennes and other European locales as part of the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion. 

When I arrived, I was surprised to find the freshly paved 70 car parking lot empty. I parked in front of the hall’s main entrance, got out of my car and made my way to the building. The lights were off. I walked beneath the portico and stopped just two feet in front of the double doors. With the building dark, the glass door became a black mirror. 

No one was there. There wasn’t a number to call. I stared back at myself through the window’s eery reflection. A chill washed over me. I realized I didn’t have a team, I didn’t have a mission and there was no plan. I was alone. Like many other vets in their transitions to civilian life, I was scared shitless. 

Many of our generation had similar experiences in their first attempts at joining a Congressional Chartered Veteran Service Organization (VSO), such as the American Legion, VFW, Disabled American Veterans, or others. Many also didn’t feel welcome as they looked at them as “our grandfathers organizations,” which at the time they were. Many of us didn’t see them as our organizations, but as organizations for “other people.” You know, old guys. That’s why many Post 9/11 vets flocked to Irreverent Warriors; Team Rubicon; Team Red, White and Blue; among a host of other upstart veteran organizations. It’s why a handful of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and I started Student Veterans of America (SVA) in 2008. We were all looking for a purpose, a mission and a community, and we wanted to help those who came after us. 

When we first started the Student Veterans Association at the University of Michigan, I approached the local American Legion Post 46 in Ann Arbor. At the time, I was 25 years-old. The two veterans I met with were 80 and 70, respectively. The post Commander, J.J. Van Gasse, was a retired doctor and author. The Post Judge Advocate, Michael Malley, was a practicing attorney. These Legionnaires and this post turned out to be our biggest advocates and partners as we fought for reforms on campus at the University of Michigan. Michael Malley even incorporated SVA for us nationally, with the help of one of our founders who at the time was in his second year of law school. In December of 2007, I bought my first suit. In January of 2008, we founded SVA — with the help of the American Legion. That same month, I made my first advocacy trip to Washington, D.C.. as part of our fight for the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Upon arrival, we were excitedly welcomed by the VFW’s National Executive Director and their entire team. Every time I went to D.C. for the next six months advocating for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, I met with our counterparts at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the VFW leadership at their D.C. Headquarters. We battle planned and identified, which senators and reps were still not supporting the bill. Then I left my bags at the VFW D.C. Headquarters — my de-facto Capitol Hill office at the time — while we went office-to-office leaning on members of Congress and their legislative staff. 

These experiences offered me a new respect for these organizations. Working with these vets, commonly 60 years my senior, I came to recognize that though we had generational and technological differences — militarily and flip-phonily — we had far more in common. Those similarities ranged from the downtime we all experienced overseas and at home station; the loss of friends to combat and to the toxins we were exposed exposed to; to the passion for helping our communities and fighting for each other when we left the service and found the government wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain. These commonalities far outweighed our differences.

My first experience with the VFW wouldn’t be my last, nor would it be my most challenging. In June of 2020, I was asked to serve as the State Adjutant for the VFW Department of Michigan, and was subsequently elected to also serve as the State Quartermaster. I found myself in these roles at the outset of the pandemic — arguably the most challenging time in the organization’s history. Like our country, we were fighting with ourselves. Destroying ourselves. Everyone cared deeply about the organization, and many had differing opinions as to what was the right direction. Compounding these difficulties, these were the first roles and titles I ever held in the VFW. Many felt my inexperience in the VFW made me a big gamble; a gamble that couldn’t be afforded as our posts fought to keep their doors open. 

While my professional background helped in allaying concerns, it wasn’t enough on its own. Many in leadership learned they could trust me, as I’d worked with them in passing resolutions at the state and national levels calling for investigations into the role of antidepressants and overprescribing in causing veteran suicides. They also knew I’d worked with leadership in the American Legion and had passed the same resolution through all levels of the Legion as well. They also had trust because they knew of my recovery from a prescribed cocktail of psychiatric drugs by the VA. They knew how my life fell apart and how I became homeless in my descent. Many had their own flavors of the same story. They’d seen other vets go through what I went through. As veterans, it was upsetting for them to see another vet struggle as I did, but they were impressed that I was able to off of all these drugs, in spite of the year long withdrawal. They too were inspired, because I came to the VFW and Legion for help in combatting the issue of overprescribing and suicides, and they too wanted to help bring an end to this crisis. 

Today, a campaign is launching and it is only possible because of the efforts of those Legionnaires, VFW Comrades and other service organizations who paved the paths before us. They wrote and fought for the passage of the original 1944 GI Bill, and fought for the Post 9/11 GI Bill for our generation. They demanded for the creation of the Veterans Administration when there was no health care for those returning from war. They led the fight to get help for those harmed by Agent Orange, and they tipped the PACT Act over the Hill helping so many of us and our friends today.

The veterans community is not perfect. As proud as I am SVA and so many other incredible Post 9/11 veteran organizations, they have fought through great challenges, and will have more challenges yet to overcome. The same is true of VSOs. To say otherwise wouldn’t be honest. Some of our generation won’t have anything to do with them, and that has been the problem. Like our democracy, its values, character and actions are a reflection of those who are engaged. The challenge these orgs faced over the years was that either we didn’t show up when we got home; or we did show up and didn’t get the reaction we needed or wanted. Then we walked away. 

The history of these organizations is evidence of our need for them advocating for us in our state capitols and in Washington, D.C. Their track record of supporting local communities through scholarship programs for kids, emergency relief funds for veteran families in financial need, retreat camps for vets and their families desperate for an affordable vacation and a host of others offerings shows how essential they are in our towns, cities and out on our rural country roads. We need them because they give us a mission and a team to be part of. There are those within these orgs that will frustrate us and drive us crazy. When we get frustrated, we need to keep fighting for them — in spite of themselves at times — because these are our organizations, for all their accomplishments, offerings, and warts. As we fight for reform within the VA mental health system, and that of the Nation, we need to renew this conviction to one another, all while giving us the sense of purpose and mission we once shared.

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