In the summer of 2002, right after I turned 21, I joined AmeriCorps. If you aren’t familiar with AmeriCorps, it was created by the federal government in 1993 to be the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. Full-time participants serve for a year and receive a living stipend that is roughly equivalent to earning the minimum wage, along with health insurance and a grant that can be used to pay tuition or pay off student loans.
As an AmeriCorps member, I served in an organization called the United States Veterans Initiative (U.S. Vets), where I worked as an outreach coordinator–which meant I was responsible for visiting shelters, forests, highway underpasses, and anywhere else one might find homeless veterans to tell them about our program.
I was a young, non-veteran trying to tell homeless vets about a program that wasn’t the VA but was located on VA property (and many veterans have a well-earned distrust of the VA).
It wasn’t easy–but I loved it.
Here’s what I learned.
1. I learned that I loved the veterans in our program.
The vast, vast majority of the 800 veterans we served during my time as an AmeriCorps member (and afterwards as staff) had mental illness and/or severe addiction issues. It could a tough crowd. I was hit with a cane, had a dumbbell thrown at me, and my brother (who also worked at the facility) was almost bitten by one of our residents.
Still, I also met Charlie #1, a post-Vietnam veteran who suffered from severe schizophrenia. Charlie #1 showed up to our program shoeless, but he was one of the kindest, smartest men I’ve ever known. He could discuss politics for hours, with a level of expertise I’ve rarely seen since. His room was attached to my office, and we spent hours talking about what might happen in the 2004 election.
I also met Charlie #2, a veteran who did five in-country tours in Vietnam, which resulted in a 100% service-connected disability. I have no idea what Charlie #2 saw in Vietnam. I never asked, and he never talked about it–but we loved watching Jeopardy! together.
Like Charlie #1, Charlie #2 was incredibly intelligent, and really good at Jeopardy!.
I loved more than just the Charlies, but they were two of the guys I loved the most.
2. Who is and isn’t impacted by their experience as a veteran is a complex issue.
Charlie #2 was almost a stereotypical story of a veteran who brought his psychological wounds home with him. After extensive combat experience, he just couldn’t reintegrate into his community.
The story of veterans like Charlie #1 is less well known. Charlie #1 entered the military in the late ’70s. That era was the beginning of the all-volunteer military, and coupled with the very recent scars of the Vietnam War, the military struggled to fill its ranks. Charlie #1 was not a high school graduate and had already shown some signs of mental illness prior to entering the Army. While he never saw combat, a peace-time military experience is still not easy. After he was discharged, Charlie #1 spent the next 25 years in and out of hospitals and treatment centers.
A tough recruiting environment after a controversial war led the military to lower entrance standards again in the late 2000s–and while it’s too early to tell, programs like the one I worked for may be seeing more Charlie #1s in the coming years.
3. Thanking veterans for their service isn’t enough.
Every veteran my program served was thanked for his (and in two instances, her) service.
A thank-you is nice, but you can’t eat a thank-you.
You can’t use a thank-you to make a car payment.
A thank-you won’t keep the lights on.
That’s been said before–but hopefully one day we will really learn that lesson, and there will be less need for programs like the one I worked for.