Quick — think of a veteran.
Did your mind go straight to a man of a certain age? If so, think again.
Today’s veterans are men and women, old and young, whose military experiences have taken place anywhere from the island of Iwo Jima to the streets of Baghdad.
When they come together now, it’s for much more than a beer and the sharing of old stories: Today’s veterans and veterans’ organizations look to the future, and are making a new mark on our communities.
In honor of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, allow us to introduce some of these true American heroes.
Jason Grantham’s first plane flight transported him to Air Force basic training in San Antonio, soon after his graduation from Fuquay-Varina High School.
“I wanted to be a police officer. I wanted travel and education, and to serve my country,” said Grantham, 30. As a military police officer he got all three, including an “opportunity” to train Iraqi police at a joint security station housed in a Baghdad palace, during the 2007 surge of forces there.
He was among volunteers from dozens of Air Force bases in the first year-long combat deployment; his unit, Det-3 Wildcards, lost one soldier and had many others injured in enemy attacks.
“It was definitely interesting, being in the thick of it and trying to survive day by day,” Grantham said. “Younger veterans need more support because what they went through is more recent. Many have to live with disabilities you can see, and ones you can’t. Twenty-two veteran suicides a day — that shouldn’t be happening. We need more avenues for help.”
Post-service, Grantham worked as a Cary police officer and is now a financial planner with MassMutual. He’s always on the lookout for new ways to serve, helping to found the Fuquay-Varina Young Professionals Network, volunteering with Military Missions in Action, and organizing the inaugural Veteran-Owned Business Fest in August.
“I’m working to build a network with veterans, and to be a resource for them,” Grantham said. “Most veterans won’t toot their own horns, so it’s important to support veterans and veteran-owned businesses as much as possible.
“I’m very proud to say I served my country,” he said. “We may not all agree on the politics or the reasons for war, but all veterans are in it together.”
When Mike Sayers became commander of American Legion Post 124 in Apex, its membership was down to four people. Seven years later, the post has about 130 members ranging in age from 28 to 90, most on the over-40 side.
Sayers served in the Navy as Petty Officer 1st Class from 1959-63 aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier serving Mediterranean ports.
“I’m proud to have served — and still be serving — my country by helping veterans,” said Sayers, who also is district commander for a five-post area. “Legion is my passion. We’re veterans serving veterans.”
The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 to care for soldiers returning from World War I. The organization was instrumental in the creation of the Veterans Administration and passage of the GI Bill of Rights.
“Anybody I meet I ask, ‘Are you a veteran? How about joining the Legion?’” Sayers said. “We have a booth at local festivals, and we’re working to build a (Legion Riders) motorcycle club,” in part to recruit younger members.
The Apex post has about six female members, including Persian Gulf War veteran and Vice Commander Patricia Harris, who also served as 2013-14 state VFW commander.
The post recently partnered on intervention training with Fort Bragg personnel and military veterans now serving in the Apex Police Department.
“It’s a whole different dynamic,” Sayers said of the modern Legion. “Everyone has a different thing they want to do, so when they come into the post you find out their interests, then put them to work.”
The Legion is also active in youth affairs including the Student Trooper Program at the N.C. Highway Patrol Training Center, National High School Oratorical Program, and leadership program Tar Heels Boys State. The post Auxiliary sponsors Girls State.
The reason Sayers works so hard on behalf of veterans is simple: “I’ve always had a passion for helping people,” he said.
If you’re a veteran, or want to help veterans, here are a few locally-based organizations to check out.
- American Legion:
- Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 7383, Cary, caryvfw7383.org
- Heroes United NC: Working to eradicate veteran homelessness, heroesunitednc.org
- Military Missions in Action: Assists veterans with disabilities, and their families;
- Operation Coming Home: Provides homeownership for severely wounded veterans;
- Veteran-Owned Business Festival, facebook.com/vobfest
“Initially, I came to the VFW for comradery. It was one of the few places I could go where I didn’t have to explain everything about my experiences, be it from the day-to-day grind to combat experiences,” said Rich Lopez, active-duty soldier and senior vice commander of VFW Post 7383 in Cary.
“We have members from the World War II, Vietnam and Gulf War eras, through Operation Iraqi Freedom. There’s a lasting bond that stretches across our military branches and all the generations of service members.”
Lopez, 38, has served for a combined 19 years in the Army and Army National Guard, including two combat tours in Iraq. Currently he’s assigned to the N.C. Army National Guard’s HHC 449th Theater Aviation Brigade in Morrisville, in charge of the Guard’s aviation assets.
Post membership helps older veterans stay abreast of healthcare benefits, Lopez notes, while younger veterans seek education options and programs to help them transition into the civilian work force. They’re also interested in volunteering and events such as bike rides and runs.
Dance lessons, trivia nights, a smoke-free facility, and family events like monthly chicken dinners are ways the post is working to attract and serve these younger veterans. Deployed soldiers can even join in post meetings via Skype.
Members also operate a thrift store open to the public.
“We do our very best to give back to the veterans that have come before us, served beside, and those who will come after us,” Lopez said. “Every meeting we have, we discuss ideas of how better to serve our veterans and their families, as well as our community.”
An important part of any veterans’ group is its Auxiliary, as a place for soldiers’ family members to serve.
Donna Wright and her daughter, Stephanie, joined VFW Auxiliary 7383 in Cary on behalf of Wright’s son Brian, on active duty in the Navy; her brother, retired from the Navy; and her late father, a Korean War veteran.
“I’m impressed by the get-it-done mindset of soldiers, how they’re always on task,” said Wright, Auxiliary senior vice president. “It’s always been important to me to support our troops.”
First involved with the VFW in New York, Wright met members of the Cary post at Lazy Daze after moving here in 2009.
“It’s a very friendly group,” she said. “We all have the same desire to work supporting veterans, and volunteering where we can in service and camaraderie.”
The Auxiliary, which also welcomes men as members, takes on projects like leading a successful new fundraiser dubbed Monte Carlo Night, and sending care boxes to deployed troops.
“It’s so fun to go shopping for the boxes,” Wright said. “The feedback is amazing. They’re so happy to be remembered.”
Locally, the Auxiliary supports the Voice of Democracy and Patriot’s Pen essay contests for students, and works with the post in adopting a family at the holidays.
The Cary business community is supportive of VFW projects, Wright notes, donating door prizes and more.
“We’re out there — Lazy Daze, the Buddy Poppy drive, sponsoring ball teams,” she said. “Our membership is growing, and people are bringing new ideas.
“It’s really important that we support our military and work to give back.”
The next generation is represented in Stacy McDade’s 5-year-old son, Brayden, who tags along on VFW Auxiliary 7383 projects like the Buddy Poppy program.
“My grandfather passed away while I was pregnant with Brayden, but before that he said, ‘Give him my poppy, and make sure he gets involved,’” said McDade. “My grandfather was a World War II veteran and always wore a poppy on his hat or shirt, all year long. He had one in his car, too, and would explain it to anyone who asked.”
The Buddy Poppy is the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, representing the shed blood of veterans. Poppies are handmade by disabled veterans, and poppy donations aid veterans’ programs.
The seeds of the VFW were planted in 1899 by veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, many of whom returned home sick or wounded. They banded together to secure rights and benefits for their service.
The VFW, like the American Legion, played a large role in the establishment of the Veterans Administration, and in 2008 earned passage of the GI Bill for the 21st Century, which expanded educational benefits to those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McDade says teaching her son about the sacrifices of veterans is important.
“I want him to grow up a patriot, with pride in his country, serving others, and having respect for the military,” she said.
“The VFW motto is ‘Honor the Dead by Helping the Living.’ His great-grandfather always had the greatest pride in his country, and reminded us that freedom isn’t free.”
Gordon Jeans joined the Army in May 1982, to fight the ideologies of Iranian ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His 10-plus years of service ended with Desert Storm, and a changed life.
“A military mission is rescue, aid and support; combat just comes with it. I was an armored guy, in ground warfare,” said tank platoon sergeant Jeans, who was wounded in service.
When he returned to Apex, it was American Legion Post 124 members who “drew him in,” with their offer of transportation beyond his VA-provided motorized wheelchair.
Since then, Jeans has earned college degrees in both computer and electrical engineering at N.C. State, runs his own company as a network architect, and remains active in veterans’ affairs, with the help of his service dachshund, Angel A.
He serves as adjutant for the Apex post and for state Legion District 11, with duties ranging from keeping meeting minutes to drafting resolutions to appear before Congress.
“Everything that happens in Legion is at the post level, then builds,” Jeans said. “The Legion will always be around, and covers every U.S. conflict. Our core mission has always been to serve veterans.”
The Legion post is a family, he says, offering veterans an opportunity to continue making a difference.
“All of us have similar backgrounds — the acronyms, living within a chain of command structure. We have things we wouldn’t tell our families, but two people who have been in the military, regardless of the timing or the job they held, find plenty of common ground.”