Veterans’ Day 2019

me and kids
Winning hearts and minds. What they don’t tell you when you’re training is that you can’t do a combat mission without tripping on five or six kids.

I appreciate you thanking me for my service, but this Veterans’ Day, I ask you for your support in helping rural America by giving struggling veterans purpose and identity.

After a military career that included multiple deployments overseas, I’m using the skills I learned from rebuilding war torn nations in my own neighborhood in rural Oregon. While there are no active opposing military forces in towns around where I live, there are major problems to the infrastructure that include problems accessing basic necessities like water and the danger of sewage contaminating our drinking water. Families live in abject poverty because a lack of living wage jobs. 

blue river

I moved back to McKenzie Bridge two years ago and I work as a community organizer. It’s a job that means, to me, nation building. Instead of doing this in Haiti or Iraq like I had in the military, I’m doing it where I grew up, where I live now. And just like I did in Iraq, I go to council meetings with the village elders. Of course here in the rural America the elders are, many times, better armed than in war torn countries, but none have shot at me so far. 

I’ve joined the Chamber of Commerce, our local Community Development Corporation, our school charter board, the Upper McKenzie Community Center board, and the local track board. These board members are the community leaders and the problems they are trying to solve are very similar to what I saw on my deployments. 

Type the words  “rural areas hit hardest” into a search engine and you’ll find some of the biggest problems we have. Opioid and meth addiction, obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer, Chronic lower respiratory disease, and unintentional injury, are all significantly higher in rural America. Medical centers, grocery stores, mental health facilities, and other organizations that provide basic needs have been closing down and leaving in the past ten years or never existed outside the cities and the suburbs. 

me, cliff, shad and an ICDC_1

The first thing you do when stabilizing a war-torn nation is to provide the population with a reasonable expectation of safety. In the military we had all types of weaponry and we patrolled, sometimes from door to door looking for bad actors. Here, in my hometown, it takes two hours to get a county sheriff to respond to anything that doesn’t involve a death. We know who the drug dealers are and even if they are reported and arrested the overworked and understaffed District Attorney’s office lets them go in a day or two.  

Pipe Rupture with crude oil in ditch.

The next thing you look at is infrastructure. In Blue River, the next town downriver from where I live, and the town that I work in, the septic system is decades past its lifespan. The current septic systems were placed back in the 1950s when the town was built up to get ready for the jobs that would be created by the Army Corps building the three dams on the river. Some of the septic “tanks” were car bodies turned upside down. Last winter, at the peak of the coldest weather, a snow storm caused the electricity to go out. This blackout lasted three weeks for many residents. No power means no heat, no pump which means no running water, no electricity, no phones or communication of any kind. Could you live like that for three weeks? When I was deployed to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, we saw people killing each other over food and water they found at convenience stores after a week of no electricity. 

In Iraq, we’d offer jobs to subsidize incomes. In Iraq, US Forces rebuilt. We did our best to win hearts and minds. We protected the masses. At least once a week I try to imagine what my rural town would look like if a portion of the time and resources we spent in that country was spent on our country. In Iraq, we had money we’d give to the Imams and community leaders. Here, we apply for grants, so we’ve been writing many of them, but they take so long and there is so much competition.  

sean and gov and sen merkley

Sean and Defazio
Sean and Congressman Peter DeFazio

Six years ago, I worked with a few of our state legislators on the Veterans Lottery Bill. We asked for five percent of the lottery funds to go to veterans issues. After a few years of spreading the word and talking to lawmakers and state organizations, we were able to get the bill on the ballot, but it only gave 1.5 percent of the lottery funds to veterans issues, still not bad. The bill passed with enthusiasm. Nearly 80 percent of the people who voted, voted yes on this bill. We had to fight other organizations who relied on the lottery funds in order to get it. Groups with deep pockets and lobbyists, groups like the Oregon Education Association for one. I remember the way we finally got the bill through. The head of the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs told the committee during testimony that every one dollar the state spends on veterans’ issues, we would get ten federal dollars in return. 

How is that, you ask? We would use the lottery funds on training and hiring new VSOs, or Veteran Services Officers. And these VSOs would work with veterans coming back from war to get them a disability percentage from the VA. They proved the point that the state-funded investment of a new VSO’s salary would be well worth it because that VSO would help so many combat veterans get federal disability checks, and all of that money would be injected into the state economy. I was glad the bill was finally going to get passed, happy that we were finally going to get some much needed VSOs, and ecstatic present and future veterans would get the help they needed. But I was also upset that the whole thing seemed to be betting on our veterans’ disabilities rather than our capabilities. 

When we spoke to people about the bill to try to get enthusiasm and support, we had told them that we were going to use some of the lottery funds to give loans to veteran owned businesses or grants to nonprofit organizations for projects that would benefit veterans. They did some of this the first year they received the funds, but since the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs has no loan coordinator or any staff that can track the loans or make sure the money was used for what the loan or grant said it would be used for, they haven’t done it since. I know because I called the ODVA just a few days ago and spoke to them about it. 

For ten years after getting out of the military I worked with combat veterans and their family members. I volunteered as the commander of a small American Legion post in Portland and found dozens of jobs and homes for veterans in the city. I lead workshops on how to use writing to live with our trauma, started a food pantry, even held a town hall for Congressman Blumenauer. My work led to winning the Legionnaire of the Year Award and the Emily Gottfried Human Rights Award from Portland. I was even knighted by the Royal Rosarians. 

I say this because I want you to believe me when I say I know how many veterans are sitting at home, right now, living off disability checks. They may be surviving off these checks, but many have no purpose, no identity, not compared to what they had in the military. Without a clear mission and without the ability to be someone who matters in this world, many veterans choose suicide. 

What if we solved a problem with a problem? Could we possibly use some of the Veteran Lottery Bill funds to help our veterans use their experience and nation building skills to help rebuild rural America?  

I know we can and here’s why. Three years ago during a snowstorm in Portland a man froze on the streets. A week later a woman died of exposure in a parking garage downtown. The week after that a baby died at the breast of her homeless mother behind a dumpster of a Fred Meyers. I decided to turn our American Legion post into a homeless shelter immediately after reading this story in the paper one morning. With a coffee maker, a crockpot, and a few cans of soup I unlocked the doors of the post. I rolled out a white board that announced we were now a 24/7 warming shelter. I naively thought I could do this by myself, but once I contacted the county and told them what I was doing, we instantly had twenty homeless people. There was such a need that as soon as I said we were ready they were sent, many by taxi voucher. 

Before the second night we had thirty homeless people and it grew each night after. The American Legion members who were combat veterans showed up and did more than I could have ever expected. Many of these guys were the ones staying home, collecting their disability checks, playing video games, and smoking pot all day. But once the shelter opened it was as if a switch was flipped. These men and women went on continuous operations and we dealt with problems we didn’t know existed. We had mental health issues, drug addiction, prostitution, death threats, and once someone pulled a knife. The combat veterans handled it all. 

In fact, the veterans organized clothing and food drives with local residents and organizations. They received so much that they were able to send clothes and food to county and city-run shelters with annual budgets and salaried employees but were still in need. We drove to homeless camps around the city and gave out water, food, clothes, and blankets. Governor Ted Kulongoski dropped off clothes and gave the coat off his back to one of the people in our shelter. The mayor of Portland came to see what we were doing. For those weeks, until the snow stopped, we were one of the most successful shelters in the state of Oregon, but after it was over, the veterans went back on their couches, drank beer, played video games. 

Here in rural Oregon, on the Mckenzie River, the Leaburg Hatchery was slated to be shuttered. Knowing this would hamstring the economy of the nine unincorporated communities, another combat veteran and I were given the opportunity to fight this. We used the skills we learned in the military and helped organize and create a movement to fight the closure. It took all legislative session, many trips to Salem, and help from our community members, but we saved the hatchery and today it’s fully funded.

We are simultaneously losing rural America, the soul of our country, and wasting the one incredible and unique resources that can actually help solve the problem.

The hard-to-learn skills and experience a veteran gets from combat is the only positive war will offer. If we can give combat veterans the tools they need to help rebuild their own country, this will give them purpose and identity again. It could help them make some sort of sense of the trauma they went through and have to live with for the rest of their lives. At the same time, we can rebuild the small towns that make up Americana that are now rotting away and drying up. People thank me for my service when they hear I’m a veteran. Let me continue to serve, let us all continue to serve. By investing in our veterans and giving them meaningful role in their communities you will assuredly cut the veteran suicide numbers and rebuild rural America. I know this to be true because we’re doing it.  

By Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and the winner of the Legionnaire of the Year Award from the American Legion in 2015 and the recipient of the Emily Gottfried Emerging Leader, Human Rights award for 2016. His stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the the Ted Talk Book The Misfit’s Manifesto (Simon and Schuster), Forest Avenue Press anthology City of Weird, Sixty Minutes, Story Corps, Flaunt Magazine, The Big Smoke, Human the movie, and much more.

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