Approximately 200,000 Americans will join the U.S. military by the close of 2019. This year’s volunteers will join the ranks of the 24 million Americans who either currently serve in the military or are veterans. When each of them made the decision to join, they knew the sacrifices that lay ahead, the risks they might be asked to take, and the responsibilities one assumes when they put on the uniform. As a small token of appreciation, our nation sets aside the second Monday in November as a day to honor their service and remember that our freedom rests on the shoulders of those who agree to serve.
In 1988, I was one of those fresh recruits, and more than 10 percent of my colleagues here at the Administration for Community Living have served in the military, and some continue to serve as reservists. The Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force all are represented in our hallways, with service spanning from World War II through our current conflicts. I could not be prouder to serve alongside them. (You can get to know a few of them in this blog post and in our Facebook album.)
Let me share the stories of two veterans, one who is a member of the ACL staff and another who has been served through one of our grantees.
When Omar Valverde was a freshman at the University of Idaho in 1985, he observed a fellow student become transformed from “party animal” to focused adult in a matter of months. His friend had joined the Army Reserve and a few months at boot camp had helped him mature. Inspired, Omar and two other friends soon signed up under the buddy system. The three of them were shipped off to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
Omar laughs now as he recalls his 19th birthday. He was being disciplined for a minor infraction and his sentence was to perform a lot of pushups – so many pushups that a pool of sweat formed under his face. That sweat formed a pool so deep and wide he could see the reflection of his own face. Omar knows that the Army took in an inexperienced student and helped him become a finely tuned instrument.
Today, as an Aging Services Program Specialist in ACL’s Office of Elder Justice and Adult Protective Services, Omar harnesses the strength the Army gave him to protect the rights, financial security, and independence of older adults. Omar works with states to build innovative legal service delivery systems to address priority legal issues for older adults most in need, including veterans.
Erin Cobb’s story is another demonstration of how the aging and disability networks supported by ACL help veterans.
Erin was a college student when she joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 2003. While she was in boot camp, the invasion of Iraq began. Erin returned to college and also went on to complete her combat training. In 2005 her studies were interrupted when she was deployed to Iraq. In 2011, after eight years of service, she was discharged from the military. Two months later, Erin’s life changed dramatically. Erin was the victim of domestic violence that culminated in an attempted murder-suicide on September 24, 2011. She suffered a severe spinal cord injury and left the hospital with what soon become a life-threatening pressure sore.
Things were going from bad to worse as the sore progressed. Erin is convinced she would not have survived if she had not become connected to Bernadette Mauro at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s Military Veterans Program, part of ACL’s National Paralysis Resource Center. Instead, Erin continues to serve her country as both a peer mentor and Veteran Council member at the Military and Veterans Program.
Bernadette is quick to point out that ACL’s funding has allowed the Foundation to expand its support of veterans, including Erin. Bernadette reports that ACL funding has allowed the Foundation to take their deep knowledge of spinal cord injury and match it to their veteran outreach efforts.
The programs ACL administers under the Older Americans Act serve veterans in a variety of ways. For example, an estimated 129,000 veterans receive home-delivered meals, and another 178,000 participate in programs at community centers and other congregate meal sites. Approximately 26,000 receive transportation services, and 22,000 receive caregiver support services.
ACL is determined to help bridge the gap between available resources and veterans in need. We applaud efforts such as the St. Mary’s County, Maryland, Department of Aging and Human Services Veterans Resource Day, which is being held today. Through their efforts, older veterans are being connected to social and health programs that help them continue to live in, and contribute to, their communities.
On this Veterans Day, as I contemplate the impact of our work, I feel blessed to be part of the ACL mission. The stories I shared are just a small glimpse into the work we do that helps veterans nationwide. To all those who have served, or are serving, in our armed forces, we thank you. On Monday, may you know that a grateful nation appreciates your sacrifices, and that ACL will always work to support you in living independently, in your community.