By Emily Williams
On Nov. 11, communities throughout the United States will give veterans their attention. But that one day pales in comparison to the contributions veterans have made for the country.
Volunteers leading the North Shelby County-based organization Alabama Veterans say one day is not enough. They strive every day to work with veterans who are transitioning back into civilian life, finding ways to help them connect with society, engage socially and navigate their new normal.
“Our staff and board are 100 percent volunteers,” said Alan Cook, vice president of the board of directors and a Marine veteran. “We have a mix of veterans and civilians because we want that broad range of people who can offer support and connections. That’s how we can build that bridge for veterans.”
Board member Chris Montz is one of the civilians. Montz is a senior loan officer with Benchmark Mortgage’s Inverness location, where he works closely with veterans who want to buy homes.
“In our area, there just isn’t a basis for veterans to succeed,” Montz said. “And if we don’t give them those opportunities, we are leaving them behind.”
The volunteers emulate the organization’s vision for change in the community. They strive to provide a place where veterans can make meaningful social connections and benefit from a variety of resources, networking opportunities and support.
“We help veterans make that transition from military life to civilian,” Cook said. He said that, in the military, “You had structure, you had someone telling you what to do all the time.”
But when they arrive home without a job, community or direction, it becomes isolating.
“They had that structure, they had that job and that uniform and had like-minded people around them at all times,” he said. “These guys, they don’t have that support system anymore that they had in the military.”
The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics estimates that there are an estimated 377,310 veterans living in Alabama.
According to data released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 128 veterans in Alabama took their own lives in 2016. That’s a rate of 34 suicides per 100,000 people, higher than the national rate for veterans, at 30, and for the overall Alabama population, at 20.
With veteran suicide rates that high, Cook and Montz said it is clear that the community isn’t paying enough attention or giving veterans enough support.
This year, the University of Alabama announced a collaborative research study with America’s Warrior Partnership and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to study why veterans are more likely to commit suicide.
Dubbed Operation Deep Dive, the four-year study will look deeply into the effect social isolation had on veterans who took their own lives but had no history of post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues.
“When a veteran comes home, even if they don’t have PTSD or some kind of traumatic brain injury, they are faced with a lot of questions,” Cook said. “How do I buy a home? How do I find a job?”
The lack of direction or easy access to information becomes isolating, causing veterans to further remove themselves from the community.
“We want them engaged and not isolated,” Cook said.
Alabama Veterans offers a variety of programming, connecting participants with national and local veterans resource organizations, counseling, career opportunities and other resources.
“If we have a veteran who is struggling, we can pair them up with a mentor who has been through it,” Cook said. “That ends up being really great for both because it also gives the mentor a sense of purpose.”
Montz added that they will coordinate small groups. His and Cook’s church, Church of the Highlands, coordinates small group Bible studies specifically for veterans, for instance.
“We also host social events throughout the year,” Montz said. “We’ll provide different experiences and activities at free or reduced costs.”
Alabama Veteran hosts a variety of events for different interests, such as bowling nights, TopGolf events, trainer-led rowing events and other activities. At the events, they encourage civilian and veteran participation.
“If it remained isolated to just the veterans’ community, and you don’t allow other people in, they’re never going to know what to do,” Cook said. “They’re never going to know how to interact because they don’t know how to get engaged with others.”
This time of the year, the organization is preparing for four days of programming around Veterans Day, including the annual War on the Greens golf tournament Nov. 10 and 11 at Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa. The weekend offers local community supporters the opportunity to sponsor a veteran’s participation in the tournament.
The weekend will be held in remembrance of fallen service members from Alabama, with honorees annually including a Gold Star Family and a Purple Heart recipient.
It also includes a casino-themed Veteran’s Gala on Nov. 10, and community members can sponsor a veteran and their date.
“We have a pay it forward mentality,” Cook said. “Those vets who attend usually have never been to any kind of formal event like this. There really wasn’t any kind of event around this time that isn’t focused on the corporate or civilian side of things. Just like our mission, we want to put the focus on the vets, we want the vets to be a part of things.”
On Veterans Day, Montz said he, as a civilian, reflects.
“Our country has taken a lot of things for granted with our armed forces and veterans,” he said. “I think it’s important to reflect on how much we would be at a loss without the members of our armed forces and our veterans.”
From a veteran’s perspective, Cook feels that Veterans Day should also be a day of celebration.
Memorial Day is the saddest day of the year for a veteran, he said. There is a certain kind of survivor’s guilt that many veterans feel, especially combat veterans, when they return home.
The son of a Vietnam vet, Cook said he knows that group of veterans felt almost no gratitude when they returned home. He also said there is a trend apparent to veterans of the country being most patriotic in the worst of times.
“We just want to show them that you survived in order to serve a bigger purpose,” Cook said. “In my opinion, thank you is just not said enough. It’s something that should be said every day.”
For more information, visit alabamaveteran.org.