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Black Air Force veteran from Maryland helps others who served readjust to civilian life

FREDERICK — After serving in the Air Force for more than two decades, a Frederick County veteran is now harnessing his energy and focus into helping fellow veterans — Black veterans, especially — transition back into civilian life.

Xavier Bruce and his wife, Alisa, founded the nonprofit Uplift In-Powerment in 2019 to support veterans, active duty service members and their families as they transition away from military service.

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“I started Uplift so that I could help other Black veterans learn about self-leadership,” Bruce, who moved to Frederick in 2016, said. “Because when I was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and I was dealing with rocket attacks, I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anybody. I didn’t feel comfortable going to get military medical care because I was afraid of the stigma associated with that.”

Bruce said he sought out life coaching, but he felt there were limited options in looking for a Black mentor and guide.

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“So, I said, ‘Well, I’m going to get some life coaching once I return from Kandahar,’ but I’m also going to become a life coach so that I can help other Black veterans like me who don’t know where to turn,’” he said.

While the nonprofit is proud to help all veterans in need, Uplift In-Powerment puts an extra emphasis on Black veterans because, as Bruce says, “There’s just some added stressors involved when minority veterans are in the military and once they get out, as well.”

When a veteran comes to Uplift, staff helps them identify their biggest pain point and then moves forward from there. Uplift is multifaceted and includes Uplift Energy Coaching, a program meant to help veterans uplift themselves. The program offers a book, workbook, flashcards and online course.

Uplift recently sought to help the community by partnering with the Frederick Rescue Mission. Bruce and others donated warm clothes and toiletries for veterans experiencing homelessness to the mission as part of the group’s first volunteer event.

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“We wanted to make sure that our first event showed Frederick that we are out here, we’re here to help,” Bruce said.

While it was a cold day, Bruce said their hearts were warmed knowing that veterans would be better off after the donations were distributed.

Wearing many hats

Beyond launching and helping run Uplift In-Powerment, Bruce also serves on the Mental Health Association of Frederick County’s board of directors.

“I was approached by MHA and I was like, ‘Man, this is perfect,’ because what we’re doing at Uplift is helping veterans. Again, I say Black veterans in particular, because when it comes to mental health, we suffer from special added stressors … as a result of threatened, perceived and actual racism while we were in service,” he said.

Over the years, Bruce said, Black veterans have to exert significant energy trying to identify when, where and how to resist oppression versus when, where and how to accommodate to it.

“What happens is, it leads to feelings of frustration, defensiveness, apathy, irritability, anger, disappointment, helplessness, hopelessness and fear. So what I was drawn to with MHA is how Uplift can really partner with MHA and how I can be a conduit and a collaborator between these two entities,” Bruce said.

Shannon Aleshire, CEO at Mental Health Association of Frederick County, said MHA specifically started conversations with Bruce about being on the board because of his valuable perspective as a veteran.

“When we look at people that we want for our board, we have a list of kind of skills, knowledge and ability that we need to govern our agency, and then we overlay that with the demographics that are important to the community that we serve,” Aleshire said. “So we want a board that’s diverse in age and experiences and genders and races, and one of those voices that we want to hear from is veterans because we know that the veteran population has historically been disproportionately underserved in the mental health arena.”

Aleshire said Bruce has great insight and energy.

“I just appreciate that he wants to give back to the community that he lives in,” she said. “We rely on that very, very heavily in all aspects of running our organization.”

In addition to his other roles, Bruce is also the chapter commander of the Western Maryland Chapter of the National Association for Black Veterans.

“What I wanted to do a while back was to help Black veterans get their [Veterans Affairs] disability high enough to where they don’t have to worry about putting food on their table,” he said. “They may feel intimidated by the process, or they may not know exactly who to go to. Because I didn’t. I stumbled around trying to figure out how to get my VA disability claim as high as I thought it should be, and I succeeded.”

About five months ago, Bruce said he was in a meeting when another attendee mentioned NABVETS. When he looked into it, he noticed the closest chapter of the organization was in Baltimore.

“As I did more research, I noticed that I could request to charter a chapter,” he said. “It’s not all about VA claims. In fact, I built a framework and the framework is the acronym SERVICE.”

Bruce’s acronym stands for social engagement, employment or entrepreneurship, residential, vocational, insurance, compensation and education.

“I wanted NABVETS to fill the gaps in Uplift In-Powerment, so they’re complementary and supplementary, and I feel like with both of those here in the Frederick community, we will be able to help a whole lot of veterans,” he said.

The Frederick resident said the pandemic has only motivated him more.

“I can only imagine the stress and anxiety that veterans in particular have during this pandemic,” he said, noting that when people are in the military they’re used to having things like health and life insurance, camaraderie and consistent paychecks.

Outside of the military, some of that can be lost, and veterans can face struggles while moving back into civilian life.

“I’m motivated to help veterans just alleviate that stress and anxiety,” Bruce said. “Some of us are one false move from devastation, from bankruptcy or divorce or getting fired because we’re just cut from a different cloth, and now that we’re out and we’re in the pandemic … I feel stressed out a bit more than the ordinary citizens out there.”

As for what he enjoys most about his work in the community, Bruce said it’s offering veterans an avenue to give back to the community.

“What Uplift does is creates a platform for veterans who have the time and the talent and the treasure to finally give back in a way that helps their sisters and brothers in arms,” he said.

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