There are veterans organizations and there are veterans organizations, and I often ask why in many cases some of them seem to duplicate each others' efforts when it comes to helping veterans and their families.
Then month after month I learn about additional groups that have been around for years that existed under my radar, while at the same time even more organizations form with the stated purpose of helping veterans. Most of them have their hearts in the right place, but then again, is duplication needed?
However, in at least one case, the stated reason behind its formation is slightly different than a traditional veterans group. America Helping Heroes is a 4-year-old organization started by Angela Alegna. She proudly says that while the group is in no way a nonprofit, the fact is no one gets paid. It's an all-volunteer effort, and no donations are taken directly. That alone makes it unique in its formation.
"Through my Neighborhood Initiative program, a donor is matched with a veteran in need and taken care of," she explained. "That way, in most cases, the donor gets to meet the veteran they are helping. If the veteran wishes not to meet, then we do anonymous help."
By eliminating the middle man, or in this case the middle woman, "the donor helps the veteran and knows their money is going where they expect it to go," Alegna said. "In many cases, it has created lasting bonds."
Organization overlap is a topic of concern for Alegna, but her thoughts on the subject go even deeper.
"After working with our troops for four years, I came to the conclusion that organizations will never do anything more than nibble around the edges of the actual problem. If organizations were the answer, there wouldn't be such an abundance of issues," she offered.
She said in doing research, she came across a number of homeless veterans and "I thought that cannot be true. I saw a lot of young veterans on the streets, and I felt completely compelled; I wanted to volunteer my time with organizations. But how it all worked was very disturbing because a lot of these organizations become businesses. It's almost a sinister thing that happens. I thought there are enough people in the community that want to help but don't know how to help.
"They donate $2,000 that goes towards expenses and 'volunteers' and advertising. I mean it's really ridiculous."
She said in some cases it's difficult to find out how donations are distributed. "If you call up Wounded Warriors and say, 'Where does my money go?' they can't tell you. If you're a soldier and call Wounded Warriors, you fill out an application and they say they'll call you in a week. And that week becomes a month."
(Although I did not question Wounded Warriors, I am aware that locally the organization often partners with hotels in Las Vegas to bring Wounded Warriors and their families from out-of-town for all-expenses-paid vacations including rooms, meals, shows and related amenities. Recently the Palazzo and the MGM Grand hosted hundreds of such veterans and their families.)
Alegna continued, "There's a greater problem. We need to take care of our guys in the first place, so they don't end up homeless and they don't end up killing themselves. It's ridiculous that we even have homeless veterans. It's not enough for a president to stand up in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and say, 'We shouldn't have homeless veterans.' Do something about it. We have to address the actual problems in the system."
She belittled the way she says the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) handles claims.
"Troops have to come home and prove they were injured in the service," she said. "They should get automatic six months counseling ... they shouldn't have to ask for help. It's stupid. They need someone to talk to without adversely affecting their careers."
Alegna said she is a writer, a musician and an artist who is profoundly affected by the plight of veterans.
"But I have been pretty much full-time doing this," she said. "It's pretty much eclipsed my life."
She said she had some funds put away before she started helping veterans, "and I have good friends and family who help me in this cause. It's an atrocity that more Americans are not talking about it. The president says, 'It shouldn't be happening in America.' But I ask, what are you going to do about it?"
(In fact, the VA does have numerous local and nationwide programs to assist veterans, but sometimes veterans fall through the cracks; and it's true that the government always seems to be struggling to keep up with more and more claims as veterans return home from the Middle East.)
She said the rate of military and veterans' suicides is greater than it's ever been, and she is concerned with the number of troubled veterans in prisons, "not to mention the accidental drug overdoses, automobile crashes" and other negatives that take a toll on returning veterans and their families.
"This is not to say that every hero comes home and finds his or her life in shambles. What I am saying is that military members are some of the most talented and amazing characters of their generation, and too much of this talent is lost in the labyrinth of post-war transition."
Finding needy veterans and individuals who agree to help does require an investment of time. "I canvas business areas and individuals, and a lot of people come to me by word of mouth and by the website," america helpingheroes.org, which she said was undergoing an upgrade during the interview but should be up and running by the time this column appears.
"I have local dentists now that come to me to provide dental care. I have counselors who tell me they want to help with PTSD. Others have jobs available."
While most of her work is done in western states, she said she has friends on the East Coast and in Texas who volunteer to assist her in those areas of the country. She said she practices her personal outreach between Southern California and Southern Nevada.
"We have to fill up the little loopholes," she said. "I want to see our guys taking care of themselves. These guys come home and they are so neglected."
She said she would like to unite the major veterans organizations "so there is real power behind it. Veterans are a minority group, and they need the American people behind them. It needs to be a very focused and proper effort."
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-270-4055.
Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and the "Veterans Reporter News" at 2:30 a.m. Fridays on VEGAStv KTUD-Cable 14.