When servicemembers are wounded during their service to their country and medically discharged, many of the challenges facing them are just beginning. The American Legion's Heroes to Hometowns program was created to help meet some of those challenges head-on.
The Legion started Heroes To Hometowns (H2H) in 2006 as a transition assistance program that sets up support networks for severely injured troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Every day in The American Legion, those who once served are supporting those who currently serve. Read
Heroes to Hometowns, Operation Comfort Warriors, Temporary Financial Assistance and the Family Support Network benefit servicemembers and their families. Read
The National Emergency Fund can aid Legionnaires currently serving in the military, while the Legacy Fund benefits the children of servicemembers killed since 9/11. Read
It takes a grass-roots effort for any Legion program to work, and that is never more evident than when it comes to troop support. Read
"We help a lot of our active-duty people and returning veterans through our Heroes To Hometowns program," says Joe Sharpe, director of the Legion's Economic Division. "Sometimes they contact us directly and sometimes they're referred to us by other community-service organizations. Whatever they need, we try to take care of it for them."
Many Legion posts and departments raise funds for the program, and an annual H2H Golf Classic is held each year at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington; last year, the golf tourney raised $25,000.
"We assisted more than 1,000 returning veterans last year," Sharpe says. "Everything from helping them with household needs to holding job fairs and showing them how to start their own businesses." H2H sponsors job fairs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and recently offered an eight-week entrepreneurship course there.
Florida Legionnaires, many from Post 14 in St. Petersburg, Fla., are making a difference through H2H on the department and local level. Department H2H coordinator Chris McCabe has arranged award ceremonies for severely injured veterans who returned home without ever being properly presented their service medals. He's coordinated trips to Disney World, and he's even helped young 20-somethings fresh from combat find employment to support their families.
Funds for the program are generated, in large part, through the annual American Legion Day at nearby Tropicana Field. Each summer, Post 14 and the department bring veterans from local VA hospitals to the venue for a Tampa Bay Rays game. The department Heroes to Hometowns program gets a portion of each ticket sold, and Legionnaires man a merchandise kiosk at the stadium that generates additional revenue for the fund.
The most recent American Legion Day took place June 16. "We brought about 55 guys from hospice and local VA facilities and things along those lines," McCabe says. "Some of them actually had to go with their medical caregivers. It's my understanding that they use it for the PTSD patients for part of their therapy so they can see how they react in the crowd and in a public setting. Plus, it just gets them out.
"We probably raised around $3,000 for the Heroes to Hometowns project. The big thing is awareness. We got some awareness. The more we get the word out there, the better off we are going to be."
Marine veteran and Purple Heart recipient Todd Jenkins threw out the first pitch during this year's game. "The andrenaline was going, but I scratched it off the bucket list," Jenkins said. "I loved it. It was a great experience. I was very happy to have the opportunity to do that."
Severely wounded veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan are encouraged to visit the Legion's website and submit an application for assistance.
Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW)
"Operation Comfort Warriors is The American Legion's response to the needs of our troops recovering in hospitals that can't be met by DoD," says John Raughter, the Legion's Communications director. "We give our wounded and injured servicemembers comfort items that DoD isn't allowed to purchase for them. Everything from sweatsuits to DVDs.
"So we visit our troops in hospitals and warrior transition units - from Walter Reed in D.C. to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego - and give them a few gifts that make their recovery time a bit easier."
Since The American Legion started OCW in 2008, nearly $500,000 in donations to the program has been used to deliver comfort items to recovering troops around the world. OCW is a successor to an earlier Legion program that delivered more than $335,000 in comfort and recreational items to wounded troops at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Using OCW funds, Department of California Legionnaires joined national staff in distributing gift-laden backpacks for wounded Marines and sailors at Camp Pendleton earlier this year. The gifts included DVDs, CDs, socks, magazines and DVD/Blu-ray disc players. "I'm still in shock that we were told that we get to keep the DVD players rather than just having them placed in the barracks," said Marine Lance Corp. Mike Bird, a wounded warrior from Coral Springs, Fla.
The gifts are the least a grateful nation can do, says Legionnaire Richard "Sunny" Farrand, a member of Post 434 in Chula Vista and California's Heroes to Hometowns chairman. "I feel our veterans, and especially our wounded warriors, deserve the respect and commitment of the American public to give them relief from their injuries. They deserve the best."
On the same trip, OCW donations provided the funding to fully equip a photography club for the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior barracks at Camp Pendleton. Staff Sgt. Richard Gonzalez, who was wounded in Iraq in 2004, said the cameras would be put to good use. "A lot of times due to head injuries, PTSD or other disabilities we lose our memories," Gonzalez said. "Photography and pictures help us regenerate those memories. We can use them as a therapuetic way of journaling."
The donations also garnered praise elsewhere. In a letter to American Legion National Commander Jimmie L. Foster, Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn wrote "your contribution and commitment of support to the brave men and women who have so courageously defended our great nation during a time of war is truly appreciated."
Originally a DoD initiative, The American Legion quickly got on board with the Operation Outreach program because of its extensive outreach at the community level.
"It's really about Legionnaires getting in touch with our troops, whether it's holding a huge welcome-home celebration for a unit, visiting the local armory to explain what the Legion does for military families, or a post commander visiting with local recruiters to let them know we're around to help," says Matt Herndon, assistant director of the Legion's Internal Affairs Division.
After signing memoranda of understanding with the Army Recruiting Command and Military Entrance Processing Command, the Legion has used Operation Outreach as an umbrella program for all of its military outreach initiatives, and as a means to help anyone on active duty.
"Reconnect lets us touch base with troops and their families before they even start to have problems," Herndon says. "If a Family Readiness Group can't help with a particular situation, then maybe we can. And they know about us because we've already contacted the local National Guard or reserve unit."
Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA)
The Legion's TFA program offers financial assistance to minor children of servicemembers or veterans who are eligible for Legion membership. "As of June 2011, we've assisted more than 370 children this year with temporary financial assistance," says Bob Caudell, deputy director of the Legion's Children and Youth Division. "We provided their parents with a total of about $173,000 in cash grants."
TFA was created by The American Legion in 1925 to help keep the children of deceased or disabled veterans in their own homes. Through this program, a local American Legion post can request cash assistance from the Legion's national organization to help military families pay for shelter, food, utilities and health expenses for their children.
"When a military family has exhausted its finances and can't find other resources, we encourage them to apply for TFA from the Legion," Caudell says. "We can provide them with cash grants to tide them over for a while, and help keep the children in a more stable home environment."
In 2010, the Legion helped 1,408 children of servicemembers and veterans throughout the country with more than $515,000 in TFA cash grants. In one instance, a husband and wife, both veterans, had exhausted their unemployment benefits. They applied for extensions, but the decision could have taken weeks. TFA assisted with keeping the rent current and purchasing groceries to ensure the well-being of the four minor children. In another instance, a veteran returned from his third deployment to not only find out his civilian job was no longer in existence, but that his wife was leaving him and his two children. TFA assisted with the rent and utilities, while local Legionnaires worked with him to secure employment.
Family Support Network (FSN)
"We wanted a program that would streamline the process of connecting military families to The American Legion family," says Jason Kees, assistant director of the Legion's Children and Youth Division. "The Family Support Network provides a mutual introduction, so when the need arises to ask for help, no one is a stranger."
FSN is a highly localized program, dependent on the resources a local Legion post can bring to bear in providing for a military family's needs. Kees says those needs can be as simple as providing dependable child care for a single afternoon, "or maybe they need a new roof, because the old one leaks in seven places. And the spouse is deployed to Afghanistan. That's when our network kicks in - the bottom line is, we're going to try and help any family of a servicemember or veteran who needs it."
A local Legion post's willingness to help out military families isn't a secret. Earlier this year, John Newman, special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Army and a Legionnaire himself, shared with Legion staff and volunteers the story of a deployed soldier's wife coming up to him at a town hall meeting, very upset because - with her husband absent - she had no one to mow her lawn. Newman did the natural thing for a Legionnaire. "Call your local American Legion post," he advised.
"Getting someone to cut the grass may seem like a small thing, but it is precisely that sort of task - the little ones, but so many of them - that can cause a military family physical and emotional hardship during the absences of their loved one," says Barry Searle, director of the Legion's National Security/Foreign Relations Division, "It's important to help these families because their well-being affects the well-being of our war fighters. The American Legion and the Army recognize that."
Legion posts may have no good solution for some problems, but they can still provide good referrals. Kees encourages military families in need to contact FSN's telephone hotline at (800) 504-4098, or fill out an assistance request online.
To read The Common Bond: Part 1, click here.
Saturday: Read about how the Legion is there for the children of servicemembers killed in the war on terror through The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund.
Sunday: It takes a strong grassroots effort to fully support our men and women in uniform, as well as their families. The American Legion has that.