By John Crawford, Babson Magazine (Babson, a MA business college specializes in entrepreneurship education)
Support the troops. That’s a phrase you hear a lot, and it’s certainly a nice sentiment. But what exactly does it mean? Is “support the troops” just something to say, or is it backed by action? When soldiers come home, they face life again in the cities and towns they left behind. They may seek a job, or education, or healing, and these alumni strive to make sure that the country’s warriors, who have sacrificed so much, receive the support they need.
For the first time in much too long, Keith Jermyn felt normal.
A senior chief petty officer in the Navy Seabees, a construction unit that lives by the slogan, “We build, we fight,” Jermyn has answered his country’s call again and again. Six times he has deployed overseas, including twice to Iraq. Last year he returned from the Horn of Africa, where he was deployed for more than a year. “It’s never easy, no matter how many deployments you do,” says the Hingham, Massachusetts, resident.
Back at home after his last overseas tour, Jermyn found that he was constantly on guard. He had a hard time just going to the mall with his wife, for he was always looking around, seeking escape routes. “That’s a good thing on the streets of Baghdad, but not on the streets of Boston,” he says. “It’s tough to navigate life like that.”
Jermyn knew he needed some way to find peace, so he met with Julie Lovely, MBA’07, who offers equine therapy to veterans on her horse farm in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Jermyn was unsure at first, having been afraid of horses his entire life, but as he groomed the beautiful animals, he found the work calming and comforting. “I was able to feel good again with myself,” he says. “It let me let my guard down. I felt normal.” When someone snapped his picture with a horse, he sent it to his mother. She was startled. “I have not seen you smile like that in years,” she told him.
The U.S. has around 22 million veterans, a large, diverse group that spans decades, from the Greatest Generation of World War II to those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women may have left the battlefield, but in the months and years after they return home, they can face struggles and battles of a more personal nature. A host of alumni have stepped up to give them support. Lovely, for instance, has long known of the therapeutic power of horses. She began offering therapy for veterans after learning of the staggering problem of suicide among those who have served. “I knew we absolutely had to add this program to our services,” she says.
Jermyn remains in gratitude for her efforts and how the horses helped lift the burden he was carrying. “Now that I’m done with the program, I miss it,” he says.
The Right Connection
Courtney Wilson, MBA’17, hates to see a veteran not receive the help he or she needs. When she thinks of a service member who has fallen through the cracks, of that stereotypical image of a man on the streets with a shopping cart and cardboard sign, she fills with frustration. “The fact that we have homeless veterans is … ,” she says, finishing the sentence with an expletive or two. “You can quote me on that,” she says.
Wilson is the founder of DropZone for Veterans, a website that aims to connect veterans with the multitude of resources available to them. “There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars available in grants and scholarships and discounted goods and services,” Wilson says. The site, which allows veterans and their caregivers to search its extensive database of resources, doesn’t focus on government programs but rather on the tens of thousands of offerings that nonprofits and corporations provide. These run the gamut: resume workshops, legal services, lower APR on a credit card, therapy sessions, service dogs, acupuncture, dental services, tax preparation, gym membership, and on and on.
Wilson says that many of these programs have been underutilized because veterans simply don’t know what’s available. Even if they do know, some are reluctant to ask for help. They may feel undeserving. “You’ll never hear a veteran asking for any of this stuff,” Wilson says. “A lot of veterans say another veteran can benefit more than them.”
Wilson hopes to change this mentality with DropZone, which she plans to launch in the Boston area this November before expanding nationwide. She says that veterans need to know there are plenty of organizations offering services. “You’re not taking anyone’s slot,” she says. “If there’s this great nonprofit and no one is using it, it goes away. If you don’t use it, no one will.”
Wilson knows the mindset of veterans so well because she is one herself. An Army captain in an engineering battalion, she served for six and a half years before her discharge in 2014. Deployed to Afghanistan in 2010-2011, she and her fellow soldiers “built anything and everything,” including forward-operating bases, security checkpoints, a highway bypass, and security improvements at a police center. The work was difficult and dangerous, and Wilson felt isolated in a male-dominated world. She told of the depression she suffered in a 2015 New York Times story, “While at War, Female Soldiers Fight to Belong.” Wilson received many emails from soldiers thanking her for her honesty, though she initially worried what those in her old unit would think of the article. “The people whose opinions I care about were happy and proud that I did that,” she says.
After her discharge, Wilson took advantage of many of those services available to veterans. One of them was a five-day, allexpenses- paid, outdoor healing retreat. The experience was so rewarding that she immediately told other veterans about it, including one of her former squad leaders, who was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The retreat had a great influence on him. “Oh my God, ma’am,” he told her. “This changed my life.” That reaction made Wilson, whose interest in social entrepreneurship brought her to Babson, decide to create DropZone. “All he needed was the right connection,” she says. “That made all the difference.”
Wilson says compiling a repository of services requires a lot of grunt work and networking, and she hopes to generate revenue for the site through sponsored listings and advertisements. She’ll rely on word of mouth from her fellow veterans to spread the news about DropZone. “Veterans trust each other,” says Wilson, a member of the Women Innovating Now Lab in Boston. “If you know something that can help another soldier, you tell them about it. That’s the teamwork I learned in the military.”
See http://magazine.babson.edu/2016/11/02/after-the-tour-of-duty/ for more.