Where do I begin to describe the power of community? In the eight years since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have waged, a community-based movement to ensure that this generation of warriors and their families receive the support they so deserve has resonated, changing the way we care for those who have served. Some of these groups have started from the ground up: a group of therapists wants to donate pro bono services, a mother, mourning the loss of her son Jacob sends care packages in his memory. In other cases, existing organizations, touched by the fallout of war, have developed programs specifically for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era families. This movement has touched the lives of over two million deployed troops and their families, and in the face of a national economic crisis and an eight year war, has remained unwaveringly dedicated to providing and advocating for our military, veterans, families, and survivors.
It is difficult to sum up the need and the response in a one thousand word blog. In an effort to explain the daily work of those in the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (CIAV), here are a few examples of the calls we receive: veterans needing help with disability claims, jobs, and medical assistance; families on the verge of eviction, with utility bills racking up; a homeless female veteran needs residential treatment, but what of her children? And so we go, providers respond quickly to the requests for support, collaborate with fellow Coalition agencies and try to cobble together a plan. There is no cookie cutter model for delivering the breadth of services and support needed. There is no master checklist that can anticipate and guide every nuance of deployment and homecoming. Nonprofit community providers improvise, in real time, in a way that our partners in government often wish they could. We are agile, effective, and on the ground, in the communities in which the veteran returns to.
We provide for the family while their service member is on the frontline, and we help them upon their return, or sadly, if they do not return. We help the veteran find a job, housing, and submit a claim to the VA for disability benefits. We work with their landlords when they are unable to pay rent, and make sure they have food on the table. We rely on our government partners to deliver as well, like the state-of-the-art research and mental health treatment Brigadier General Loree Sutton shared through this blog. We don’t assume the Department of Defense (DoD) can solve all the problems of an individual soldier, or that a veteran is solely the responsibility of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). These families enduring the war are in our communities – they are just like us. But unlike our experience of this war, they have a heavy burden to bear on their shoulders: to endure combat, separated from their loved ones, return home from war struggling with the experiences they’ve faced, overcome new challenges at home, and find a job in a civilian world that doesn’t understand their military past.
The Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans is comprised of over 50 agencies, all part of the community-based system of care. We urge the military, VA, and Administration to roll out the best and most comprehensive support. We stand ready to work with them, do our share and inform the leadership of the needs on the ground. Many of our partners are active duty, veterans, National Guardsman and Reservists, or family members and have firsthand knowledge of life during war. Many of us have friends and loved ones currently enduring their 2nd, 3rd or 4th tour, and have seen the mental health impact both professionally and personally. This gives us a unique perspective that many Americans do not have. We try to shine a spotlight on the needs, and breakthrough the 24/7 noise of our culture to say, “Stop.” Look at these families. Look at these wounded warriors. Look at these homeless faces. Look at the heartbreak and worry of a toddler whose mom is overseas, of a sister who will never again see her baby brother, of a veteran who grapples with suicidal thoughts. Look at the stack of close to one million disability claims backlogged at the VA. Look at the veteran waiting for someone to help.
The magnitude of the need is immeasurable and seemingly insurmountable. Where do you start? How do you harness a funnel cloud? How can you make a difference? Even as I write this, I can’t even convey the full scope of need. Indeed, this is the world in which the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, the National Guard, the Wounded Warrior programs, VA, and Vet Center case managers find us. And so we go, piece by piece we do our part. The Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans is building a network of agencies who are serving those who serve. And within our geographic regions and spheres of expertise, we create networks weaving together a vast safety net. We proactively ensure that military personnel, veterans, families and survivors are welcomed and supported in meaningful ways.
Individual stories and agency collaborations illustrate the impact we can have as a Nation when we unite behind our military, veterans, families, and survivors. A widower may reach out to Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) for peer support in grieving and celebrating the life of his wife. An infantry soldier with Traumatic Brain Injury may be flown from Louisiana to Texas by Air Compassion for Veterans to receive residential treatment at Project Victory. A veteran struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and considering suicide may call National Veterans Foundation for crisis counseling, who may refer him to The Pathway Home or Veteran Homestead for residential psychological treatment. A family may stay at a comfort home built by Fisher House while their veteran gets services from the VA. A farmer may train a veteran of Afghanistan how to raise crops and subsequently find a place to heal with the help of Farmer-Veteran Coalition. While a National Guardsman is deployed, her daughter’s piano classes can be made possible by Our Military Kids to bolster her spirits and give her an outlet. A 23 year old veteran may find himself homeless and Swords to Plowshares (my agency) can provide transitional supportive housing, and help him work with the local VA to stabilize his medications and care plan. When it is time to go to college he can turn to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) for guidance navigating the new G.I. Bill his peers worked so hard to deliver.
In one thousand words, I cannot begin to cover the tremendous work that is being done. And in spite of our efforts, we know for every military and veteran family assisted, another waits in a state unimaginable to the 99% of Americans who are untouched by these wars. And so the work continues. But do not be overwhelmed. Do not look away. Visit coalitionforveterans.org and click on an issue that touches your heart. Look around your own community for agencies working on behalf of those who serve and chip in your time or money to support their important work. One service member at a time, one family at a time, one veteran at a time, one survivor at a time. We can work to settle the storms, heal visible and invisible wounds, and ensure that they all receive the support and care they’ve earned for decades to come.