This column in Attraction, by Amelia Blades Steward, visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore or are one of the organizations giving back in unique ways to better our world. She has been a freelance writer in our community for over 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.
At the recent dedication of a new Vietnam War monument on the grounds of the Bay Bridge Marina on Kent Island, local citizens also celebrated a new strategic partnership between the Queen Anne’s County Veteran and Military Support Alliance (VAMSA) and the National Veterans Health and Wellness Foundation to open a national center of excellence to provide critically needed resources and support for service members, veterans, their families, and caregivers. The VAMSA Center offers free navigation services, counseling, peer support, benefits advisement, massage and holistic therapies, and other locally based services.
What sets this center apart is the unique commitment to helping all military members, veterans who have served for any amount of time, military and veteran family members, and caregivers regardless of whether they are related to a wounded warrior or not. All services are free of charge and will be offered in person; virtually, where possible; and in-home when needed (and feasible). On-site services will be prioritized based on a needs assessment underway.
“We realized we needed an organization to help veterans coming back from the Middle East to navigate their way through the VA and to be a single source of health for veterans,” comments co-founder and Vietnam veteran Wes Guckert, President and CEO of SDVOSB, The Traffic Group, Inc.
Wes, Walt Petrie, a retired Vietnam veteran and retired shopping center developer and current owner of Libbey’s Coastal Kitchen at Bay Bridge Marina, along with Joe Candella and Eric Johnson, conceived the idea of building a military veteran military support organization because of the number of veterans with service disabilities who were not getting what they needed from the VA.
Walt donated one of the offices at the Bay Bridge Marina to house the organization and funded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Statue on the site. Walt and Wes have known each other for over 40 years. Both are Vietnam veterans. Wes was in the Air Force and Walt was in the Army. Wes is also on the board of The Catch A Lift Fund (catchaliftfund.org), a national organization that enables post-9/11 combat-injured veterans all over the U.S. to recover and rehabilitate both physically and mentally through physical fitness, motivation, and support.
Walt comments, “Eight years ago, we sat with a bunch of guys who talked about how veterans don’t join the VA because it is such a frustrating experience, taking such a long time to just get through to people. What we’re trying to do here is help people with things like getting through to their doctors or collecting a spouse’s share of the life disability benefit. It’s all-encompassing for veterans, their families, or anybody who needs help with the VA. Although it’s located in Queen Anne’s County, it’s for anyone across the U.S.”
To date, the organization has raised close to $100,000 and hopes to sustain its efforts through a combination of private donations and grants for its approximate $400,000 annual operating budget. The organization has received support thus far from the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners, the VFW, and the American Legion. VAMSA is working over the next year to develop and open a resource center that offers the following:
(1) Assisting with access to and use of government and private sector agencies
(2) Education and Training
(3) Access to Medical and Behavioral Health Care
(4) Peer Support
(5) Financial Counseling
(6) Holistic Therapies and Healing Services (e.g., massage, aromatherapy, music and art therapy, etc.)
(8) Resource Networks for Family Members and Caregivers
According to the organization, about 7,000 veterans lost their lives in the Middle East, and since then 30,000 veterans have committed suicide. Only 22% of veterans sign up for VA benefits – a source of support that could benefit their physical and mental health.
“It’s those who complain the least who need help. Wes and I both joined the VA and saw how difficult it is to transition and get through the VA program. The more we got involved with other veteran groups, the more it became clear, that it’s a bigger mess than we personally realized,” comments Walt.
Wes adds, “Quoting past President Ronald Reagan, ‘If not now, when? If not us, who?’”
“Veterans and their families encounter some of the most challenging struggles of any Americans – especially after service members come home wounded both physically and mentally,” says Eric Johnson, Executive Director and Vice Chairman of VAMSA and a disabled Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (Afghanistan) Veteran. “We seek to cement the standard that there is an absolute moral obligation to support the entire military family from start to finish.”
“Our military and veteran families have sacrificed so much and deserve to live in communities that value them, invest in them, and understand the unique cultural, environmental, and battleground experiences they share in service to their country,” Walt adds.
In the future, the center will serve as a training ground for community leaders across the nation, particularly those in rural America, to assemble, exchange ideas and learn how to operationalize “thank you for your service.” They can then return to their respective communities and establish similar resource centers adapting the model presented at the center.
Additional information can be found at qacveteransupport.org or by calling Eric Johnson at 410-739-0970. VAMSA is a component fund of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation. Donations can be made online at qacveteransupport.org.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Statue
On March 25, 1967, during Operation Junction City, members of Company C 4th Combat Engineers Spec 4 Michael Twigg, Spec 5 Michael Knight, and Sergeant Lloyd McBroom were killed in action. The new Vietnam Veterans Memorial Statue at the Bay Bridge Marina was conceived by Vietnam veteran Walt Petrie, a retired shopping center developer and current owner of Libbey’s Coastal Kitchen at Bay Bridge Marina. It is dedicated to the three men from his troop in Vietnam who lost their lives, their families, and the other 55,000 men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War.
Accompanied by veterans of all generations, special guests at the dedication ceremony included Company C 4th Combat Engineers former members Captain Sanchez and Colonel Sciple, Lieutenant Pietrie, Spec 4 Joe Poppone, Spec 4 John Patella, and Spec 5 Ron Gray as well as company commanders. In addition, local, regional, and state officials, including Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown, were also in attendance.