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8 surprising ways vets are helping vets

December 25, 2015 (Photo Credit: Chris Swathwood/Colorado Aviation Business Association)

The crew at OFFduty and Best for Vets have gotten to know a lot of veterans in 2015, and one characteristic we've found so common among Post-9/11 veterans is the drive to help out fellow vets, especially those dealing with what staff writer Jon R. Anderson describes as "the fog after war."

Here's a countdown of some of our favorite unexpected new ways veterans are helping one another that we've discovered in our communities and explored in our content this year:

8. Toys from on high

Goodwill took wing from an Englewood, Colorado, airfield earlier this month for a donation drop that’s become a tradition in the state’s aviation community. 

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Current and former troops on hand for the 2015 VFW Charity Airlift, a team effort by the Colorado Aviation Business Association and Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Precision Flight Team: Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric Wilkins, Airman Angel Lopez, Air Force veteran Carl Houghton, Army Reserve Sgt. Erin Helgren, Marine veteran Scott Frank and Army veteran Pat Diamond.
Photo Credit: Chris Swathwood/Colorado Aviation Business Association

Volunteers from the Colorado Aviation Business Association, led by Army veteran and association chair Mike Straka, teamed up for the fifth year with Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Precision Flight Team to deliver toys and food to veterans’ families in remote reaches of the state. 

Like so many veteran-focused efforts, the VFW Charity Airlift wasn’t lacking in veteran volunteers. 

The whole exercise involved 12 aircraft delivering more than 5,000 pounds of food and toys to veterans’ 

families in five outlying towns.

VFW posts on the other side ensured the supplies made it into good hands.

7. Giving entrepreneurial spirit

There’s something about veteran entrepreneurs. They know how to make things happen and, increasingly, are finding ways to give back to the military community.

Take Sword & Plough.

Army 1st Lt. Emily Nunez Cavness and her sister created their little startup with two big goals in mind: Make functional-yet-fashion-forward accessories out of repurposed military surplus gear, while also helping to empower veterans.

In the two years since they got started, they’ve done just that, building a successful small business from a humble Kickstarter campaign while funneling 10 percent of their earnings into veteran nonprofits such Got Your Six.

“We love Got Your 6 because they’re all about ensuring civilian employers understand veterans are empowering assets, not charity cases or — on the other side — all superheroes,” Cavness says.

Most of the companies featured in our annual veteran-made holiday gift guide support some of kind of worthy military community cause.

6. ‘Powerful tool’ for good — from the Dark Side 

There is good in him, we can feel it.

Marine veteran Adam Driver may be the new leading man for the Dark Side of the Force, but that doesn’t mean the former infantryman isn’t doing good things in real life.

Long before he was cast as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” villain Kylo Ren, Driver was leading his own group of rebel actors, organizing stripped-down skits and monologues for troops under the banner of his nonprofit Arts in the Armed Forces.

That work continues.

"We're hoping to show that language is a powerful tool, that self-expression is a powerful tool — it's just as valuable as any rifle you carry or any tool you can put in your pack," Driver told a group of troops gathered for one recent performance in the Middle East.

Driver launched AITAF in 2008, even while finishing acting school in New York City, organizing a few performances every year since in locations ranging from his old stomping grounds at Camp Pendleton, California, to military hospitals and bases overseas.

5. Voice for interpreters

Thousands of Afghan and Iraqi interpreters come to the U.S. under a visa program each year for their safety and that of their families, but they often arrive with little money or prospects. Staff writer Karen Jowers describes the people and purpose behind the organization No One Left Behind:

"Some have struggled to feed their families, and some have found themselves homeless. No One Left Behind is the only nonprofit helping these interpreters and their families as they resettle in the U.S., according to the organization."

The group has helped several hundred people, including families, resettle in the U.S., according to the Army captain who founded No One Left Behind with the friend who was his interpreter in Afghanistan.

4. Free cannabis

Roger Martin’s career spanned the Army, law enforcement and entertainment, he says. He intended to get involved in the cannabis industry when he got a German shepherd instead.

Dog training classes introduced Martin to recent veterans, who were training service dogs. Some were taking “10, 15, 20 different prescription medications every day,” he told Military Times.

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Roger Martin, Army veteran and founder of Grow For Vets, photographed at his home in Woodland Park, Colo., on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015.
Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff

“They had marital problems. They were in domestic abuse situations, all kinds of terrible things, and they had found that cannabis helped them cope, for example, with PTSD and chronic pain and other serious medical conditions — but that it was so expensive for them to obtain that they just had a hard time obtaining it on a regular basis.”

Then Martin woke up one morning with a new mission:

“Now I give free cannabis to veterans.” 

He reported this fall that Grow for Vets — the volunteer organization he founded in order to legally distribute cannabis for free in states allowing medical marijuana — had received federal recognition as a 501(c)(19) veterans group. 

Martin bluntly criticizes treatment plans involving a lot of different meds and describes firsthand experiences of getting on and off oxycontin, followed by a visit to the “good doctor” who suggested cannabis when he couldn’t sleep after coming off other drugs.

Grow for Vets doesn't actually grow cannabis but instead takes donations from established operations and redistributes the products, including "everything ... from bud to shake to trim, but our biggest donations are from cannabis-infused products companies. Incredibles ... [has] donated over $60,000 worth of product to us just over the last year-and-a-half or so."

Grow for Vets is recruiting chapter leaders, Martin said, and welcomes “support chapters” in states where medical marijuana isn’t allowed yet but veterans want it to be. Chapter leaders don’t have to be veterans, but Martin finds that a close connection to a vet often motivates volunteers.

3. Old tradition reaches the cosmos

Much of the world’s attention may be focused on that galaxy far, far away, but a real-life spaceman was recently focused on joining one of the oldest veterans groups in the country.

The Force may not be strong with Scott Kelly — the force of gravity, that is — but that didn’t stop of him from joining Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 in Denver, floating within his own outpost in outer space Dec. 9.

“Here among the stars from the International Space Station, and with everyone at this evening’s dinner, I, Scott Kelly, do of my own free will and accord, join Veterans of Foreign Wars John S. Stewart Post No. 1,” said Kelly, a former Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot, via video during the post’s 116th annual gala.

No surprise Kelly would want to joint Post 1.

While much of VFW has been struggling to survive dwindling membership in recent years, Post 1 has experienced new life, reinvigorated with a leadership focused on helping today’s generation of war fighters.

Partnerships with groups such as the Art of War Project have allowed Post 1 to leave behind the traditional old bar typical of most posts and reinvent itself as an art gallery, movie house, yoga studio, networking center and host of other programs and offerings.

2. Stress-free retreats 

Former Army Ranger Nick Watson started VetEx — Veteran Expeditions — because he knew more fellow former troops needed to experience the power of the mountains.

“Like with a lot of veterans, the wheels in my head just tended to spin. I had a few experiences that I just stewed over. That occupied so much of my energy. I didn’t even realize how much until that moment on the mountain. I realized when I was climbing, all I thought about was climbing. That focus is addicting. It’s a like a drug, a very good drug, and I was definitely hooked,” said Watson.

Since launching in 2010, VetEx has transformed 1,500 veterans into mountaineers, while also building a cadre of local climbing leaders and a network of volunteers to help support the effort.

From local surf clubs and motorcycle groups to full-time veteran-run retreats, it’s all part of the growing number of ways former troops are helping other vets face life after the military head on.

That’s also the idea behind Boulder Crest Retreat in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

The nonprofit, started by former Navy bomb diffuser Ken Falke, provides free stress-recovery retreats for combat veterans, couples, families, caregivers and Gold Star families.

Meanwhile, construction for another veterans retreat — specifically for wounded warriors and their families — is underway in Virginia Beach.

Dubbed Camp Grom, the $15 million, 70-acre, surfer-themed adventure park – complete with ropes course, aquatic center and a 3.5-acre lake for fishing and cable wakeboarding — is slated to open next year.

The project is the brainchild of former Navy Lt. Ross Vierra and his Virginia Gentleman Foundation, a group he co-founded to help make a difference in the local community.

“The idea is provide rehabilitation through recreation,” says Vierra. “When you’re on a ropes course swinging across a lake, you’re really saying something.”

1. Bringing everyone together

A common spirit pervaded the veterans events and venues we visited in the Mountain hub this year. 

At the Women Veterans of Colorado’s annual conference held on a Saturday, you could attend an employment seminar and get résumé help, a haircut, makeup and a professional portrait for your LinkedIn profile, then apply to employers on-site.

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Denver’s VA Stand Down for homeless veterans organized by the Veterans Affairs Department and held at the Colorado Army National Guard Armory served 530 former service members on Nov. 19, 2015.
Photo Credit: Barbara Magyar/Veterans Affairs Department

The Denver VA’s longstanding Stand Down comes as no surprise, and Stand Downs happen all over the country, but you might be surprised at what goes on at one.

At Denver’s recent Stand Down, 530 of the state’s estimated 950 homeless veterans assembled for backup ranging from boots and sleeping bags to dental checks, eye exams, help obtaining vital documents, a court session for those with tickets or warrants getting in the way of progress, and lunch.

Embodying the ideal every day, Volunteers of America’s Bill Daniels Veteran Services Center in downtown Denver just opened this year. It’s a wide-open workspace where VOA staff and partner organizations see clients and mingle. 

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Brenton Hutson didn’t expect a Marine Corps buddy he knew on deployment to come through his organization’s homeless program. “He was the most solid guy I knew, but he had run into hard times,” said Hutson, director of the Colorado Volunteers of America’s Veterans Services Division.
Photo Credit: Amanda Miller/Staff

About a dozen groups besides VOA work out of the center, including the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Veterans Advocacy Project, in which attorneys and law students — often veterans themselves — help vets with issues such as disability cases and discharge upgrades. 

Even with a bachelor’s in nonprofit management and a master’s in public administration, Iraq veteran Brenton Hutson didn’t expect a Marine Corps buddy he knew on deployment to come through his organization’s homeless program.

“He was the most solid guy I knew, but he had run into hard times,” said Hutson, director of the Colorado Volunteers of America’s Veterans Services Division.

The new center has added up more than 900 instances of services delivered since opening in July, exceeding first-year expectations and making headway toward a much bigger and fast-approaching goal of zero "functionally" homeless veterans — not only "street" homeless but those moving from place to place, staying with others — by spring 2017.

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