This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Welcome home, veterans. The VA is looking for you.
As part of a major national outreach, the St. Louis VA Medical Center is throwing a welcome home party for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on May 17 at the Soldiers Memorial downtown. The VA will honor the veterans at a formal ceremony and present them with Global War on Terror medals.
Gregory Campbell, the St. Louis VA's program director for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, is hoping 500 veterans and their families will come to what, he says, will be an annual event.
"The welcome home is the VA's way of letting our veterans know how much we appreciate them," he said.
Campbell is offering enticements: free food and giveaways donated by area groups and businesses, plus entertainment and games for the children. More important, he says, there will be information booths where veterans can learn about health care and other benefits, plus a range of resources to help them with education, employment and other readjustment needs.
Recent combat veterans can also expect a phone call from the VA.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it has hired a private contractor to operate a "Combat Veteran Call Center" to phone more than a half-million veterans to make sure they know about VA medical services and benefits.
The first phase will start May 1 and target an estimated 17,000 veterans who were injured or became sick while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The second phase will target 550,000 veterans who have been discharged but have not contacted the VA for services.
In a news release, VA Secretary Dr. James B. Peake said the VA is committed to getting veterans the help they need and deserve.
"We will reach out and touch every veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom to let them know we are here for them," Peake said.
Campbell acknowledges that this new push to reach out to veterans is overdue and that it follows negative publicity over weaknesses in the VA health-care system and at the Army's high-profile Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.
"After they had that horrible affair at Walter Reed, everyone went into hyper drive," Campbell said. "The VA has been slow to the draw but now is really gearing up."
Campbell, a Vietnam War veteran, said a lesson learned from his generation is the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on vets' lives. At the same time, he says, returning servicemen and women often do not seek help.
"When these soldiers, sailors and Marines come home, they just want to get back to their normal lives," Campbell said.
That is particularly true with National Guard soldiers who, on average, return to their civilian jobs within two weeks of returning from their deployments, said Pat Rowe Kerr, veteran ombudsman for the Missouri Veterans Commission.
Kerr described the VA's new outreach as "critically needed" because of the growing number of veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We believe that since October 2001, counting National Guard, Reserves and regular active duty, we've had over 51,000 deployments just from Missouri. There have been over 2.9 million deployments across the nation," Kerr said.
These veterans are entitled to benefits, but they must sign up with the VA system, she said.
Stan Brown, a Vietnam veteran who is president of the Gateway Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, pointed out that these veterans are all volunteers who faced long – and often multiple – deployments.
"I think it's a wonderful idea to have this opportunity to welcome them – and to help transition them back into civilian society," Brown said.
Welcome home celebration
Sponsored by the St. Louis VA Medical Center
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 17
Where: Soldiers Memorial, 1315 Chestnut, downtown St. Louis
What: Veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and their families are invited to a celebration featuring free food, music and entertainment. The VA, and local veterans service organizations and agencies will share information on issues ranging from VA health care benefits to education and employment. Veterans will be honored at a ceremony at 10:45 a.m.
Registration: Deadline is May 1. A registration form is available at www.stlouis.va.gov/
For information: call Gregory Campell at 314-289-7641