With today’s changing military and the lack of funds available, the number of programs and resources that would normally offer support to transitioning service members are being reduced.
According to a Jan. 15 article in the Washington Times, four of the top veterans service organizations reported that the Veterans Affairs Department will need an additional $2 billion in 2015 alone to keep up with the growing demand from veterans.
Of the resources available after separating from the military, some require fees that not everyone can afford, while other resources have specific eligibility criteria that must be met to qualify. For example, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an organization that has been around since 1899, is designed to assist veterans who have served overseas in a foreign war. Veterans who want to join the organization must first meet the requirements and then pay a lifetime membership fee, dependent on their age: a 35-year-old would pay $410 — the older the member, the lower the fee.
The Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary offers a wide range of member benefits for those who served during a period of war and received a service-connected disability. The cost to join is also dependent upon age, with a 35-year-old paying $250. Unlike similar organizations, the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America does not charge a membership fee; however; it is specifically designed to assist only those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. According to the website at IAVA.org, their mission is to raise awareness in the media, the public and on Capitol Hill, addressing critical issues that veterans and their families face. Some of those issues include a stretched VA system and inadequate health care.
Regardless of the resources available, Gerald Patrick Boulware, a former staff sergeant in the United States Air Force does not meet the eligibility criteria. Instead, he turned to fellow veterans within his own community and those he served with.
Boulware said social media can be a great help, with sites like Facebook offering many veteran resource links. He said he is considering starting his own veterans resource page, which would provide an accurate list of researched information to assist veterans looking for answers. Having received support, financial advice and employment assistance from fellow soldiers has been “without a doubt … the most helpful,” Boulware said.
He said he joined the Air Force to honor his dad. “I did what I was supposed to do, but in the end it didn’t matter,” Boulware said. He followed the rules and met expectations but he wasn’t being promoted so the Air Force forced him out. With 15 years of service under his belt and only five years left until retirement, the military involuntarily separated Boulware. He said he didn’t know where to turn for health insurance, and he and his wife were expecting a baby. He said they were shocked by the cost of medical care and worried about how they would afford it without an income. Boulware said the separation process was quick. “Fifteen years of service, stability, paychecks, benefits … all gone in a matter of months,” he said. His resume showed years of experience and expertise in computer operations, but his military experience did not translate well in the civilian world. Without guidance, he said he felt lost and worried, and wondered how someone who had served their country for so long was “all of a sudden a second-rate citizen.”
Frank Trenton Bell, a retired United States Army staff sergeant, with 23 years of service, including three tours in Iraq, said he joined the Army to ensure a better future for himself. He had planned on staying in the Army a few more years when he found out he was going to be involuntarily separated because of the Army’s Retention Control Point policy, a term used to describe the point where a service member has hit the maximum number of years at their rank before being forced out.
“Us old guys spend our time training these younger ones, just so they can come up and surpass us,” Bell said. “I had all of the experience and qualifications, but was lacking a degree; and kept getting passed up for promotion.” He said he now feels left in the dark. When Bell left the Army, he no longer had access to resources like Army Knowledge Online, which contains his information and records. “There is such a disconnection between the different agencies that information is not being put out correctly,” he said.
Bell also said finding other veterans who have gone through the trials and errors of separation are the most helpful. They find each other at the VA, the grocery store, in line for a prescription and even sporting events, he said.“Figuring out who I am now, how I’m going to pay the bills, how I’m going to get a job with a resume that doesn’t make sense to a civilian — it’s all very difficult,” Bell said. Although he does meet the eligibility requirements to join some of the veterans organizations that offer assistance, Bell said his budget doesn’t “allow extra things like that right now.”
During his 15 years in the Army, Brandon LaRay, staff sergeant, served multiple tours in the Middle East. He was injured in Iraq and awarded the Purple Heart Medal in 2006. LaRay continued to serve until last year, when the Army gave him the boot because of his medical condition. “It came as a major shock because I continued to do my job and perform well for years after the injury,” he said. “They didn’t give me much time to prepare for a future beyond the Army.”
Like Boulware and Bell, LaRay said finding employment and gaining access to affordable medical care is the most troubling. “I am lost, and don’t know what to do and where to go,” he said. “The whole time you’re in the military someone is there telling you what to do and how to do it; and, if you do it wrong, there is someone there to correct you and get you on the right track. Then, all of a sudden, you’re out of the military and there is no one there and now your resources are limited. You ask a question and get 10 different answers.” LaRay said transitioning veterans need guidance and accurate information. Without these fundamentals in place, service members are not equipped with the tools needed to ensure a smooth transition.
Like those before him, he is finding it more beneficial to turn to other veterans for help. The challenges service men and women face when leaving the military can be insurmountable, so they have to rely on something. Boulware, Bell and LaRay all agree: for now, it is each other.
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In August 2014, motorcycle riders, associated with the American Legion Dane R. Balcon Post 2008 in Falcon, Colorado, formed the American Legion Riders group. President Frank Serrano said the group of veterans gets to enjoy their passion for riding while helping the community.
“I wanted to ride my motorcycle with a group that honored veterans, and that is what made me join the American Legion,” Serrano said. “I am a patriotic person and a motorcycle person, and this gives me the best of both worlds.”
The ALR is in line with the goals of the Legion. “The pillars are veteran affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism and children and youth,” Serrano said. “We are just veterans helping veterans.”
The ALR started out with about 65 members with Post 2008; and, in just over a year, the group has grown to 150 to 160 people, he said. “We are a very active part of the post,” Serrano said. “People want to join us because of the energy we bring.”
Serrano, who served in the United States Air Force, said the riders all want to support the community in various ways. Many volunteer at places like Sarah’s Home in Calhan, a faith-based, therapeutic home for underage girls who have been rescued from the commercial sex trade industry.
The ALR has also sponsored events for military-related programs such as a paintball event for the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Falcon High School, Serrano said. The motorcycle group turned out to support the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts at their annual pancake breakfast in July in Falcon. The ALR also held a “Stock the Pantry Poker Run” in September, with proceeds and food donations going to the High Plains Helping Hands Food Pantry.
“There are a lot of events that we have done that I’m proud of,” Serrano said. “We did the Run for the Wall ride, which is an annual event that leaves from California and goes to Washington, D.C. The run honors prisoners of war, missing in action and killed in action military personnel, and shows support for all our military personnel.”
Serrano said the ALR visits the Bruce McCandless State Veterans Home in Florence, Colorado, for a barbecue every year, and they also hold a Biker’s Ball in the spring, with all the proceeds going to the McCandless home.
“If a veteran wants to join us, they have an automatic camaraderie with us,” he said.“It’s therapeutic for veterans like us to join. Some are old, and some are younger. Some are about to get rid of their motorcycle; but, when they find out about us, they decided to keep it and ride more than they ever did before.
“Anything veteran-related, we want to do what we can to help.”