When she left the U.S. Army in 1991, Junnie Watson said there wasn’t a lot in the way of guidance for her transition into the civilian world. But now, as the service officer at American Legion Post 83 in MacClenny, Fla., she’s working to change that for both veterans and servicemembers in her area.
Watson is the organizer for Post 83’s Baker County Military & Veterans Community Resource Fair at the post on Feb. 3. The event is a collaboration with Northeast Florida Women Veterans, Inc., and will bring together federal and local resources, as well as other nonprofits and service providers, who can assist both veterans and active-duty military, and their families.
“It’s a rural area, and there’s a lot of information that’s not available. People just don’t know,” Watson explained as the reason behind the event. “There’s also not a VA clinic or VA resources in Baker County where a veteran can go in, or a servicemember on the way to becoming a civilian can get help. And it’s an older population as well.
“As a post service officer working with veterans, I do a lot of ‘let’s call this place. Let’s call this place.’ So, my thought process was, ‘Let’s get something together and bring everything here.’ To have everything here, to me, was an opportunity to get it out there and have all the resources in one area.”
Watson said when she left the military, “No one was really telling us how important the exit physical exam was and to have everything documented. Nobody said, ‘Hey, go to the VA.’”
She’s working to change that, as well change the thinking of some veterans who didn’t make the military career and now feel they don’t have any potential benefits. “You hear a lot of, ‘I didn’t retire’ or ‘I only served for three years or five years,’” Watson said. “It’s important to remove that stigma for the veterans to know that you are a veteran, that you served your country, that you had a DD214, you’re honorably discharged, and you are entitled to A, B, C, D.”
The resource fair will include U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs staff who will, on the spot, be able to enroll veterans in VA healthcare, schedule initial appointments, and provide resources and information. Also in attendance will be Baker County Veterans Services, Baker County Medical Services the Florida Department of Health in Baker County, as well as education and career resources.
Watson said it’s important that federal, state and local resources all will be available at the event. “It’s so important for the community to even know some of the resources that are not VA-connected but are right there in the community,” she said. “There are companies and organizations that are willing to help.”
Watson said family members of veterans are encouraged to attend as well. “A lot of times you have family members who are the caregiver for that veteran,” she said. “So, they need to know, as well, what’s available for them. We have veterans who have dementia, and they can’t think or act for themselves. So, it’s important that the spouse and the families know what resources are there for them as well.
“And if that veteran is in the hospital or has passed away, that family needs to know what their entitlements are.”
Being a post service officer opened up Watson's eyes to the need for an event such as the resource fair – an event she hopes is just the first in a series of similar efforts.
“I’m honored to be the service officer. I’m passionate about it,” Watson said. “And I am so excited to be able to do this and see the support we’ve received. And it’s great that we, as The American Legion, can say that every veteran is important. They all served.”