By Ron Leir
Taking a cue from the increasing numbers of American troops returning from Middle East battlefields as part of a phased U.S. military withdrawal, Kearny’s American Legion Frobisher Post 99 Auxiliary is taking the lead to develop a resource referral service for both active and retired veterans.
The campaign – modeled after an initiative of the Auxiliary’s national headquarters – is called Kearny VOICE (Veterans Outreach Information Community & Education) and it will have a kickoff pig roast fundraiser Nov. 3 at 1 p.m. at the post hall, 314 Belgrove Drive. Admission is $30.
Spearheading the effort is Auxiliary President, Mary Alyn Fisher, widow of a Vietnam War veteran.
Fisher said the mission is simple: “to be a service organization for (Kearny’s) military community. We want to provide consistent, aggressive service to our veterans and their families. … We see ourselves as a link to any resources that exist. We want to help these people to have a place to go …. We want to build a kind of safety net.”
To that end, Fisher said the organization intends to do a “mapping, an assessment of the community to learn what types of resources exist in town,” or, if not available locally, where veterans and their families can go to get help.
How many members of the armed forces will be their target audience and what types of issues they’ll be grappling with are questions for which, as yet, there are no firm answers, Fisher said.
But VOICE, working in partnership with such groups as the local American Legion members, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Marine Corps League, expects to get those answers, according to Fisher.
“We did have one meeting in July,” she said, and one outcome was VOICE’s launching point: creation of a veterans’ aid website which will have links to available veterans’ resources on the local, state and national levels.
“We’re going to publish a living, breathing document which our outreach coordinator is going to keep continually updated,” Fisher said. That site will also explain how and when people can reach that individual for assistance, she said.
Another VOICE objective, Fisher said, is getting someone local certified by the state as a veterans’ service officer whose job is to assist veterans and their dependents in applying for benefits or education, public health or job programs available to them.
VOICE has called on Bill Sweeney, a member of Post 99’s Sons of the American Legion, to accept that responsibility and he has agreed to take it on. Sweeney, who served with the Navy from 1976 to 1981 with the Military Sealift Command, has signed on to take the required training by the New Jersey Association of Veteran Service Officers Oct. 22-26 in Atlantic City.
“I’m going to provide outreach services to veterans who live in Kearny and, especially to those veterans returning from (overseas combat assignments),” Sweeney said. And Fisher said she plans to take the training also.
In the meantime, Sweeney said, Post 99 Cmdr. Anthony Capitti is reaching out to the N.J. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to try and get a count of those Kearny residents who’ve been deployed to the Middle East and elsewhere from the state’s National Guard and Reserve units, along with enlistees.
Fisher said VOICE has applied to AmeriCorps, the national service organization, for a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) aide who could help research veterans’ resources, update the website, get the latest information about veterans’ legislation out to appropriate community agencies, assemble a veterans’ data base and catalogue all relevant information.
As another weapon in its evolving arsenal of resources, Fisher said VOICE received a $6,000 mini-grant, supplemented by $250 from the Kearny Municipal Alliance, to offer free online training in suicide prevention through the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Institute, based at the University of Washington.
“These are different techniques to persuade someone (such a veteran dealing with post traumatic stress) to get help, to refer someone to a resource if somebody does say, ‘yes, I’m thinking of suicide,’ ’’ Fisher explained.
“We’re thinking of offering this training to teachers, police officers, EMS personnel, public health workers, members of faith-based associations, as examples,” she said.
Fisher emphasized that she has no documented expectations that Kearny veterans would, in fact, be in need of such a service that that it’s being included as part of the VOICE playbook as a precaution.
“Our program is still in the developmental stage,” Fisher said, “and is subject to change, depending on how our community assessment goes.”
U.S. Army Col. (Ret.) Stephen Abel, director of Student Veteran Services for Rutgers University and former deputy commissioner for N.J. Veterans Affairs, said that more than 20 percent of those veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan “suffer from some degree of post traumatic stress.”
Abel said Rutgers offers its student veterans, in need of psychological assistance, such options as group counseling at the Graduate School of Applied Psychology, weekly one-on-one visitation with a veteran’s counselor who is, himself, a veteran, and a call center staffed by veterans and run by the University of Medicine & Dentistry out of Piscataway which caters to members of N.J. National Guard and Reserve units. The 24-hour call center, set up seven years ago, has since gone national with U.S. Dept. of Defense funding under the name, Vets4Warriors.