“Legion Posts in SW Iowa need to understand when Veterans in their community don’t have a point of contact to easily reach out to for information, to ask for resources, or just listen, the Veteran is either going to turn to someone else, or give up altogether,” Commander Amy Muse explains. “The Be a POC Campaign” was designed to be the next step to the Buddy Check Program started by National Headquarters several years ago.”

For rural veteran Mickey Ireson, appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs were a source of apprehension and stress, rather than relief. In early April, the former Marine infantryman received a call from the VA telling him that his evaluations for mental health and dental work had been scheduled at the Omaha, Nebraska, office. Ireson lives three hours away in Hastings.

Initially scheduled for three separate days, Ireson was finally able to have the appointments moved to one day, but that meant six hours worth of driving, and several hours of meetings with physicians and caregivers. For Ireson, who is employed and going to college on the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, lengthy travel time can mean a day behind in class, or a day’s worth of wages lost. In addition, Ireson has trouble being on the road for several hours at a time, and the frustration that comes with hunting for parking in a crowded lot, and long wait times once he arrives, only makes him more agitated and apprehensive about the VA.

“Driving to Omaha doesn’t make it any easier,” says an exasperated Ireson, who left for his appointment at 5 a.m, and didn’t return home until after 3 p.m. “That’s one more thing to stress out about, there goes a whole day of class, now I have to make up for class, there goes money I was making, there goes fuel I was spending. I don’t know any civilian that drives three hours for a doctor’s appointment.”

Veterans from rural America, like Ireson, consistently shoulder a disproportionate portion of the national security burden, yet they face more obstacles in seeking health care services through the VA than their urban counterparts. Although the challenges facing rural veterans may be caused more by geography than a lack of policy reform, so long as rural veterans are limited in their access to care, they will remain underserved. These Veterans, like Mickey, in our communities are looking for help in navigating the VA System for benefits they have earned. However, so are our aging Veteran population. The American Legion helped establish today’s VA, so Legionnaires have a vested interest in making sure its intent to serve Veterans remains steadfast.

Rural America is vital to our nation’s military, and therefore, its security. Rural Americans account for just 20% of the population, but provided 44% of America’s military recruits in 2010, according to research published in the Journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States in 2013.

This tradition of service is evident in the roughly two million rural Americans who served after September 11, 2001, and previous generations of veterans who fought in Vietnam, Korea, and during World War II. Of the nine million veterans enrolled in the VA health care system, approximately 3.2 million, or 35%, are living in rural or highly rural areas, according to a fact sheet provided by the VA’s Office of Rural Health. However, according to figures provided to Task & Purpose by the Office of Rural Health, states like Vermont have much higher rates of enrolled rural vets, with 88% of its total veteran population, or 21,000 people, living in small towns as of 2014. Comparatively, Texas has the highest number of registered rural vets — 212,000 — but this figure only represents 30% of its enrolled veteran population.

For many growing up in rural America, military service can mean professional training and work experience that might be transferable in the private sector, and the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill provides a college education, paid in full, which offers a means for upward economic mobility. Of course, there’s also the drive to serve, especially in a region where it’s not uncommon, but is in fact more akin to the status quo. According to the Office of Rural Health website, youth from rural America are 22% more likely to join the Army than those from urban areas. While joining the military can offer a host of opportunities for young men and women, returning to those rural communities after completing their service can create an equal amount of hardship. “This is where Home Base Iowa can really make a difference,” explains Commander Muse. “The American Legion also needs to fight for Home Base Iowa to be more of a priority throughout our state.”

Transitioning out of the military can be exacerbated by living in a rural area for post-9/11 veterans. When Ireson left active duty in 2012, he did what many service members do; he moved off base. Ireson had served with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, and deployed twice, first to Afghanistan, and then with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. Growing up in the foster care system in California and Florida, Ireson couldn’t afford to move to his mother’s home in Nebraska, so he decided to stay near the Marines he served with and ended up living in Wilmington, North Carolina.

While there, Ireson found little opportunity to restart his life and even less support. He spiraled downward, and eventually ended up in rural Kansas, homeless, penniless, recovering from substance abuse, and struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I often wonder why Veterans in these circumstances don’t reach out to the nearest Veterans Service Organization”, further explaining when she moved back to Iowa in 2016, she jumped on the computer to see what Veteran Organizations were active in her area near Glenwood, IA. “I was shocked when I really didn’t find anything in SW Iowa. That’s when I realized The American Legion in my hometown would be a good start; however, the only point of contact I could find was a phone number posted on the door. I was too intimidated to call and gave up.”

“I’ll never forget the day I met Barry Hiller.” She explains how Barry, a Veterans living in her neighborhood reached out in a handwritten letter. Barry explained he was an Air Force retiree and left his phone number to call if Amy needed anything and invited her to a VFW meeting. “I rode with Barry to a VFW meeting in Tabor, IA about 30 minutes down the road. Barry just has this way about him that is comfortable with the intention of serving Veterans.”

“If Barry never reached out to me, I would likely would not have ever joined a local Post, which is why I started the “Be a POC Campaign”. It is so important for Legionnaires to realize they need to be bold in taking that first step and offering the opportunity to join the greatest wartime Veterans organization. By offering the opportunity, they may actually help a Veteran like Mickey, or even save a life in the process. Only a veteran understands a Veteran, I am a firm believer in that!”

Every Post in 7th Pioneer District has the opportunity to earn $100.00 for their Post by first identifying 2 members outside the Post Executive Committee (no elected leaders) to act as Points of Contact (POCs) for the community. Too often, Post Leadership is the only resource available. Secondly, a Post must also conduct Post-wide Buddy Checks once during the 2021-2022 membership year. The District Commander will spot check each qualifying Post by doing her own random Buddy Checks and ensure POCs are posted on the District Facebook page and website for your Post.

Commander Muse explains, “This is just the first Post Incentive Level, but I feel it is the most important incentive for local Posts to work towards. My Post in Glenwood is conducting our Buddy Checks starting at 1000, Saturday, November 13, 2021. I encourage all Posts to check in with their members during Veterans Day weekend. I can think of no better opportunity to reach out.”

Everything you need to conduct Buddy Checks can be found at https://www.legion.org/membership/buddycheck. Click here for renewal information, https://www.legion.org/renew. Register on MyLegion.org to manage your own account and to pull Post Rosters for your Post. https://mylegion.org/PersonifyEbusiness/Home

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