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Vets Commission serves those who serve their country

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

6:35 AM EDT, July 4, 2013

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Veterans in Howard County have numerous resources to help them throughout, and after, their service — they just may not know about them. That's where the county's Commission for Veterans and Military Families comes in.

"We want to make sure our military families and veterans are getting full use of the services, the amenities we have, which are many," said Howard T. Mooney, who has served on the commission since its creation in 2011. "We're a group of people who get together and listen to the needs of this population and work with the county to make sure their needs are met."

Even though the commission is in its summer recess — the group will convene monthly meetings again in September — members are still hard at work reaching out into their communities to find fellow service men and women who need their help. The commission also is currently seeking two new members to fill vacancies: a citizen representing the Navy and one representing the Marines.

The commission, was established by County Executive Ken Ulman and the County Council, is made up of more than a dozen men and a women who have served in the Armed Forces or immediate family members of those currently serving. Mooney described the group as a connecting web, bringing veterans together with the services that can help them. That can mean providing transportation to the Veterans Affairs Clinic at Ft. Meade, or referring them to the Columbia Workforce Center if they need a job. It means working with Howard Community College to help veterans pursue a degree or certification, or connecting the Howard County Public School System with military families new in the area.

The group also is trying to "wrap its hands around something very important," said commission member Reginald Avery — exactly how many veterans live in Howard County. There's a ballpark figure — about 22,000, Mooney said — but it's difficult to pin the exact number down, especially when one considers the homeless population. The commission members rely on churches and social agencies to give them leads on men or women who could use their help in finding housing or medical assistance.

"For a veteran to be homeless, it's a shameful thing," Avery said. "For a man or woman to have given of themselves, to sometimes spill blood, and to be without a home or health care? It's shameful. We're trying to reach out, to say 'We're here, we can help you.'"

Beyond the confusion over what services are available, said commission member Tony DeRosa, there's also confusion among the veterans themselves as to what constitutes a veteran.

"Sometimes, people think that if they served in the National Guard or in the Reserves, or if they didn't see combat, or were just in the service for a short period of time, they may not be considered a veteran," he said. "That's not the case. That's not the definition of a veteran. It's anyone who has served. Anyone."

The changing military and social culture also is affecting what services are available to veterans, Mooney said. Immediately following World War II, he said, veterans were widely recognized for their service and sacrifice. That interest waned after the Korean and Vietnam wars, but the War on Terror has brought a resurgence of recognition.

"People are beginning to recognize that these folks put their lives on the line day in and day out," he said. "They have to move their families constantly, and are called upon at the drop of a hat to execute a mission. It's a noble profession to wear a uniform. Freedom to enjoy the day is largely defended by our people in uniform, and it's not handouts we're talking about — it's things the government has said all along that veterans should receive."

The Commission for Veterans and Military Families meets in the Howard County Government Gateway Building. Its next meeting is Sept. 12 at 7 p.m.

If you or anyone you know could benefit from the commission's work, contact 410-313-6521.