Jack E. Kemp
As we sat in a gym with many other organizations’ tables set up, a woman from the Red Cross was explaining to me that they have, in New Jersey, programs called Reconnection workshops where they teach newly returning veterans how to reengage with their families and build communication skills to both identify depression and work through anger. Julie told me of Red Cross programs in Veterans’ hospitals where they organize picnics, wheelchair games and other social activities. The Red Cross even has a free Hero Care App (cell phone application program) “designed to help members of the military, veterans and their families identify and access both emergency and non-emergency Red Cross services…” Previously, a staff member of The Veterans Homeless Housing Project explained to me their organization had an electronic website and advanced phone “app” because many homeless veterans either contact the world through their cell phones or through the use of computers in public buildings such as libraries.
In an early November weekday, I traveled to an event called a Stand Down, a gathering organized by non-profits and government agencies to supply veterans with a one stop center of social services, also including what they called a “Free PX” where donated clothing (the items appeared new and clean) were laid out on tables and racks for the veterans to chose new garments. There were backpacks with toiletries, stress counseling and even free haircuts and medical screening information. There was even a table of Rutgers College students educating the veterans on staying away from sweet soft drinks. The women at that table insisted that I go to the lobby and try the special drink they brought, low calorie cinnamon water with apple pieces floating in the jar for added flavor. It was quite good.
All this took place at the Ukrainian American Cultural Center in Whippany, a town in North Central New Jersey. Some veterans came by car but many homeless vets were bussed in by social service organizations to meet fellow veterans as they found out about services available to help then readjust to civilian life.
You often hear that no one is supposed to be willing to help veterans, that even the news from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) is all bad, based on the worst examples that make the news. But even the VA showed up with a big mobile home and a staff inside the gym to offer assistance, alongside such organizations as Catholic Charities (1-855-SOS-VETS), Project Help (www.ProjectHelp.US), Community Hope (www.communityhop-nj.org), the New Jersey state government (www.njveteranshelpline.org and 1-866-VETS-NJ-4), and two I will talk more about later. Other organzations that attended I apologize for not recalling or mentioning here.
Brett D’Alessandro, Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan and the founder of Backpacks for Life (www.backpacksforlife.org), invited me to this event in Whippany. Brett has attended similar Stand Down events in other parts of New Jersey and also in Rhode Island. At all of them he handed out backpacks filled with toiletries for veterans. Brett now includes a female backpack which one of his women volunteers advised him on what to include inside for female veterans (a number of them came to the event) and even included some smaller empty backpacks with image designs for either boys or girls. In the time I spent at the Backpacks for Life table, veterans with children and grandchildren requested these as well. And along with the backpacks, Brett handed out a letter and a stamped envelope where he requested that veterans write him and tell, in words and/or photos, anything they have to say (both good and bad) about their experiences in the military. Brett encouraged them to write stories or poems as well and stated that they could include their name and address or be completely anonymous. Brett also handed out a Resource Information sheet, printed on both sides, of organizations that help veterans. If you want a copy, please contact the Backpacks for Life website at the website in this paragraph.
One of the organizations on that printed list is run by the person who had a table adjoining Backs for Life at the Stand Down. Brett Cotter runs an organization called Stress Is Gone (www.stressisgone.com) which teaches veterans and others how to deal with stress. Cotter’s website has a number of free helping tools and also a free account for veterans. Brett Cotter’s father was a Marine who served in Vietnam, experiencing some of the toughest battles of that war. When his dad’s brother suddenly died, the Marines let Cotter’s dad return to the States for the funeral, but he missed it by a few hours. After that, when he returned to Vietnam, he thought he would not survive his last battles, but he did. Still, all these experiences left him a changed person which his son saw growing up. Brett Cotter has a degree in psychology and has studies ancient techniques at the Himalayan Institute (in the U.S.). Today, he “facilitates classes in corporations, schools, hospitals and nonprofit organizations.”
In the last hour before he gave away the last of the backpacks, Brett had me volunteering to give out some packages of Girl Scout cookies (donated to his charity by Operation Shoebox) to the vets and also a few of the backpacks as well. I could see the looks on the faces of the veterans as they accepted the cookies from me, thanking me for this small additional gift. I don’t think the backpacks and cookies themselves were what Brett and I were being thanked for. It was a thanks for remembering their service and validating them that day in New Jersey, a day so close to Veterans’ Day.