Local veterans want to create new group for Iraq, Afghanistan war veterans

Local veterans advocates are hoping to gain support for a new veterans organization tailored for men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The Veterans One Stop is hosting a Military Community Meet and Greet Monday targeting younger veterans with families. 

The event will double as an informational meeting about starting a Waco chapter of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America group, a 10-year-old national service organization focused on veterans who have served in the most recent U.S. wars. 

“This has been somewhat attractive for the guys who have recently returned, and they want to participate in something,” said Steve Hernandez, veterans services officer for McLennan County and one of the people advocating for the IAVA chapter. 

Younger veterans aren’t likely to become involved with traditional veterans services groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion, Hernandez said. 

Those groups tend to have fixed meeting dates at their headquarters, while IAVA chapters mainly organize outings or events based on members’ interests and schedules. 

“I think it’s a great concept,” Hernandez said. “You’re trying to get them to come forward to do what they want to do, and not stick to an agenda of something that has to be done.” 

Marine Corps veteran Luke Connally said while he thinks there is value in those older organizations and bonding with veterans from previous wars, he also feels a stronger desire to connect with veterans who share similar combat experiences. 

Connally, 31, served a month in Iraq before being severely wounded by shrapnel during a suicide car bombing Dec. 1, 2004. 

“It’s to continue to have a network where you can relate to the folks that experienced the same thing you experienced,” Connally said. 

“It’s not the same thing as going to a typical American Legion or VFW event — nothing against what they do. It has to do with that this generation doesn’t necessarily feel that they belong in that VFW hall, necessarily.” 

Connally said IAVA encourages members to meet on the 11th of each month as an expansion of Veterans Day, which is celebrated on Nov. 11. 

He expects that a local chapter would take advantage of social media in planning outings, such as dinner, sports games or even events open to family and children. 

“You really create a community instead of just an organization; that’s one of the benefits of that,” said Connally, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan. 

Hernandez noted that incidents of both post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are higher with veterans who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“We want to be sure we can address TBI in particular and some of the aspects of that injury,” Hernandez said, noting that the impact of brain injuries can spiral even years after a veteran has completed his or her military service. 

“We may have had them in the past, but they were not as prevalent as they are now, to that point where that is a concern, the long-term effects that we’re dealing with.” 

Monday’s event also will serve as an outreach for veterans’ family members and introduce them to the various resources at the facility. 

The Heart of Texas Region Mental Health and Mental Retardation opened the center last year as a central clearinghouse of resources for veterans. 

In addition to Hernandez and the MHMR support program, veterans benefits consultants and organizations like the Texas Veterans Commission, Heart of Texas Workforce Solutions and the Military Order of the Purple Heart have regular office hours at the facility. 

Between 700 and 800 people visit the center each month to access services or attend special programs like legal-aid clinics tailored toward veterans. 
Melinda Bonds, MHMR’s program director for mental health and veterans services, said military personnel who are leaving the armed forces or returning home from an overseas deployment typically don’t establish an immediate connection to their local veteran community when making the transition to civilian life. 

Instead, a crisis situation drives them to seek assistance from groups that serve veterans, she said. “It takes a period of time after folks return from stints of service,” Bonds said. 

“I think that once they become settled and they find that there are gaps in needed support, then you see them come for assistance. That’s typical, that we’ll see them begin to trickle in.” 

Bonds said the center will hold meet and greets throughout the year targeting the younger veteran community as well as National Guardsmen or active-duty reservists. 

Though the main goal is to make them aware of services they can access at the facility, Bonds said the Veterans One Stop also wants to foster greater social connections among those groups, which can aid in dealing with the mental and physical trauma of serving in war. 

She also hopes the facility can be a resource for veteran and military spouses and children in learning to cope with a deployment or the transition to the civilian community. 

“When someone goes into the service, it’s a family commitment, so when they return, everything that has transpired while in service and after a person has returned from active duty requires participation from the whole family,” Bonds said. 

“So we want to be able to support that family.” 

By REGINA DENNIS
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