A third of all homeless people in the United States are veterans. This stark fact was one reason Rod Wittmier's Self-Expression and Leadership program involved bringing old and new veterans together in a mentoring program. The program, called VetsMeetVets, had its first meeting of veterans in early January, with the next planned for this spring. The Seattle-Tacoma News covered the story.
Older vets try to help a new generation.
Skip Irving of Bonney Lake served in the Army from 1969 to 1972 and said his time was much easier than others’: He worked with electronics in Europe and North Africa while others went off to fight in Vietnam.
One of Irving’s friends didn’t have it as easy. The two shared a house in the mid-’70s, after each was out of the service. Irving learned to be careful when waking his friend, who slept with a knife under his pillow.
“It took him so long to get better,” said Irving, now 61. “It was tough for people to know what he was going through.”
He hopes a new mentorship program, called VetsMeetVets, will provide stability for today’s veterans struggling to return to civilian life from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. And he feels a duty to help the country’s service members.
“It’s payback, quite simply,” said Irving, a manager at Schucks Auto Parts in Enumclaw. “I have a good life, have been reasonably successful. My kids have grown up and are successful. It’s time to pay back.”
The program is the brainchild of Rod Wittmier, who has launched an ambitious plan based on a simple idea: A challenge can be easier when someone who has already gone through it gives advice.
The Buckley resident has launched VetsMeetVets, a series of events to link younger veterans with older ones. That can mean anything from questions about filling out health insurance forms to spending a day fishing, Wittmier said.
The first event is Saturday at the National Guard Armory in Buckley.
“It can be tough when you first get out,” said Wittmier, a 53-year-old veteran who taught other soldiers how to fix electronics. “But if someone is there to say, ‘Hey, I can help you with this,’ then it becomes a whole lot easier.”
He was motivated while listening to sermons stressing service. His business experience provided the know-how.
“I’m a businessman,” said Wittmier, who owns a Web site consulting firm. “And as a businessman, if I ever wanted to do something new, I would create a mentor relationship. I would find a CEO who had already done what I wanted to do. I’d pick their brain, run questions by them.”
So, he figured, why not transfer that idea to help returning vets?
Wittmier emphasizes it’s a totally different approach to most veterans programs, which he describes as “reactionary.”
“They wait until someone is homeless or is fighting an addiction. I thought, ‘Why don’t we start serving and honoring and loving our recent veterans immediately after they return?”
Wittmier is thinking big. He invited every mayor in the area and expects several to attend. So will representatives from county, state and federal veterans agencies, and a staffer from the office of U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn.
Wittmier admits he has no idea how many veterans will take him up on his offer. The older ones are easier to recruit – he conservatively expects 30 to 40 to show up Saturday – but the younger ones are more elusive.
“I would hope that we have people standing and struggling to get into the door,” he said. “But really, I have no clue how many people will come.”
He hopes the event can be a model for others across the country. But he doesn’t quite consider himself a world-changer.
“If I can connect 25 younger vets with 25 seasoned vets, then I’m happy,” he said. “I will have made a difference.”
Check out: www.vetsmeetvets.org
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We are doing our next event on 5/16/09 (Armed Forces Day) in Pacific WA.
Please see our site for more details.