It is becoming too easy to forget Veteran’s Day. One of the downfall’s of an all-volunteer military is that people in many walks of life don’t even know someone who served. What should be a day of honoring sacrifice becomes a day off from work or a day you wish you had off.
My father was Vietnam veteran. If he were around, he probably wouldn’t want me writing about it. But, sometimes he’d tell me things about the war. Fishing trips with my Dad and my uncles who had been there really brought out the stories. He was the first to say that he was one of the lucky ones, and the real heroes didn’t come home.
When Roadrunner started the SNAP Outreach program, one of the “target populations” I wanted to work with was Veterans. The idea that people who offered years of their life to serve our country are now going hungry in it is unacceptable. Once a month, I have the opportunity to go down to the Veteran’s Administration. I’ll help men and women fill out the application for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. But, it doesn’t have to be at the VA. I’ve met many, many vets standing in line at food pantries around the state. Sometimes, they’re easy to spot in a crowd; a fatigue jacket, a USMC tattoo, or an Air Calvary button on a cowboy hat.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, census data indicates there are 900,000 Veterans who receive SNAP assistance each month. This figure does not take into account veterans experiencing homelessness.
Recently, I was helping one gentleman fill out an application. He was in his 60’s and on oxygen. Since he got home from Vietnam, he’d had a job and a home. Now his social security check just was not getting him through the month. He was living at a friend’s house. His VA social worker had sent him down to talk to me. As he signed the forms, I saw so much sadness in his eyes.
“You know, I’ve never had to ask for help in my life.” He told me.
I thought of the things he must have been through. Basic training. Mortar fire. DMZ’s. I thought of him coming home in the late 60’s or early 70’s to a divided country. I thought about my Dad.
It was hard to see such a proud man feeling shame about asking for help. People on food stamps live with an undeserved stigma. If someone who fought for their country doesn’t deserve government food assistance, who does?
The SNAP program as we know it today was made possible by the efforts of Senator’s George McGovern (D) and Bob Dole (R). They were two World War II Veterans who believed that feeding hungry people was a not a partisan issue, it was the American thing to do.
“You served your country, now let your country do something for you,” I heard myself say. It came out awkward and almost amusingly Kennedy-esque. But I was desperate to make him feel better about what he was doing.
His eyes met mine. He didn’t say anything for what seemed like ten minutes. He just looked at me with his best ‘thousand mile stare.’ He exhaled slowly.
“Hhhhhhmmmmmm,” he growled. He then said something to me that I cannot post here in this family blog. Many veterans I have known given to colorful and creative forms of self-expression. Let’s just say he showed his “appreciation” for my patriotic choice of words.
I didn’t know what to say.
Finally, he started laughing at me. So, I knew it was okay for me to laugh too. Like my Dad and my uncles used to do, he had put me in my place. We finished up the form. He said he was grateful to me for being there to help him with the application.
All I could do was shake his hand and say ‘thank you, sir.’
Jason Riggs is the SNAP Outreach Coordinator at Roadrunner Food Bank.