When the nearly 80 members of the American Legion Family arrived at the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation (HVAF) property in west Indianapolis for a community service project cleanup of the facility, they began the day as many had numerous days in the military: with a police call. Lined up shoulder to shoulder, they fanned out over the 2.5-acre property, picking up sticks, bottles and anything else that they could find.
The community service project is something the Legion Family has done annually for years during the national convention. This year’s beneficiary: the Vista Center/Warman Houses in Indianapolis. Warman Houses are made up of 45 units, and house many of HVAF’s veterans. They serve as transitional housing units for the veterans as a way for them to have shelter while receiving help from HVAF’s case managers.
HVAF houses, supports and advocates for all veterans and their families to help them achieve the best quality of life. In 2018, they served more than 1,200 veterans through their multiple programs and services: case management, housing, employment and pantry.
For Brian Copes, the president and CEO of HVAF, the volunteers were crucial. “The property here is just one part of a much larger system of properties we’ve got to help out veterans and their families in need,” he said. “We couldn’t maintain these properties. We couldn’t do what we do without an army of volunteers like (the Legion Family) who come and help us out on a regular basis. So, the obvious benefit is just helping us maintain safe, functional properties.”
Additionally, the mere fact that the Legion Family came to help sends a message, Copes believes. “It sends a powerful message to every one of our veterans, they still matter, and someone still cares,” he said.
Noting the diminishing percent of Americans who had served in the military, Copes stated that “what you see is kind the of the divide between Americans and the military widening even further. Groups like (The American Legion) help keep American society connected to that veteran’s community, so thanks for what you do.”
For many who volunteered, like American Legion Past National Commander Denise Rohan, it seemed a natural thing to help out. “We’re doing painting, yardwork, and trimming trees and shoveling stuff…this is what The American Legion family is all about,” Rohan noted. “It is veterans helping veterans, and what better place to do that than here. When we come into a city for national convention, we have an onslaught of American Legion Family come in just to show our thanks to the community. And what better way than to be out in the community, with special shirts on so they know who we are, just being out there helping. “
Bill Oxford, the leading candidate for national commander, agreed with Rohan. “This is about who we are and what we do” he said. “As the country’s largest veterans organization, we owe it to our homeless veterans to provide as much help as we can. Visibility is the key, and I’ve preached this for two years, and I plan to preach that same thing for the next year. We’ve got to be visible. We’ve got to let people know who we are and what we do, and that’s just who The American Legion is. We provide help and support to America’s veterans.”
For many of the clients of HVAF who were on hand to witness and help with the cleanup, it was a blessing to get the help.
“It definitely warms my heart to see these people out here” said resident James Adams, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the late 1960s. “I love seeing the appearance of this place improve. I improve as it improves. My spirit is better. I’m very much grateful for everybody [that came out to help.]”
For Oxford, it was important to help out people like Adams, who find themselves in a tight spot.
“People sometimes get in dire situations, not by their own causing it, but because of bad luck or the situation or bad things happen” Oxford said. “It does my heart good to come out and be able to provide support and help, or maybe just offer advice and comfort or mentoring to these folks. That’s why I belong to The American Legion.”
Copes noted that HVAF maintains numerous properties, and budget is always a concern, so having volunteers do maintenance is the only way he can keep helping veterans. He also noted that while the numbers of homeless and at-risk veterans have been stable over the last decade, the demographic of who they serve has changed.
“About 70 percent of our client base is Iraq and Afghanistan vets, 35- to 45-year-olds, about 80 percent of whom are married and have dependents,” noted Copes.
Like Rohan and Oxford, Gary Schacher – the outgoing Department Commander of New York – believed that doing community service with HVAF just made sense.
“It’s what we do, veterans helping veterans. We help each other,” Schacher said. “It hurts to see veterans in a position like these, because somewhere along the line they were your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines, and they stood tall with you. They’re down on their luck right now, so we’re helping them out. To see this force from The American Legion here in the community helping out, I mean, that’s what we’re all about.”