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Szymanski: When it comes to helping our deserving veterans, 'it's all about action'

Visiting veteran Gus Allen, left, veteran Leonard Kirk, center, who serves on the committee with George Owings, III, right, are shown at Veterans Appreciation Night hosted by the Freedom District Lions Club on Wednesday night.
Visiting veteran Gus Allen, left, veteran Leonard Kirk, center, who serves on the committee with George Owings, III, right, are shown at Veterans Appreciation Night hosted by the Freedom District Lions Club on Wednesday night. (Submitted photo)

I was honored to be able to attend a Veterans Appreciation Night hosted by the Freedom District Lions Club on Wednesday night, where I learned a lot more than I ever knew about the benefits our veterans are receiving, but even more about needs that are not being met for Carroll’s many veterans.

When I think about the sacrifices veterans make for our country, I have to wonder why every county in every state, and especially our federal government, is not striving to always get it right. Without our service men and women this country would not survive.

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According to George W. Owings, III, who serves under Gov. Hogan as the Secretary of Maryland Department of Veteran Affairs, Carroll County has recovered $14 million for veterans compensation since 2013. That is no small number, but Owings says there is more work to do. He had traveled from his home in Calvert County to be the keynote speaker at this event. His passion for our vets overflowed in the form of words, spilling from him like water from a well.

“Charlotte Hall, one of the best [Maryland veterans hospitals] opened in 1984,” Owings said, noting that there are only 158 in the entire country. “We need at least four more homes in this state. For that we need land, so I go around the state doing talks like this, asking for someone to donate 22 acres to us so we can build.

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“One facility at a time,” he said. “Doesn’t anyone have an older uncle who wants to will 22 acres to the veterans of our state?”

My thoughts turned to my uncle Dave, who used to regale me with tales of his time in France with General Patton, or of hiding in foxholes … and of the longing he had to come home.

“Have you ever heard of Wayne Miller?” Owings asked. My thoughts swung away from my uncle. “He’s an amputee who sings the Lee Greenwood song we sang earlier tonight. But, when he sings, ‘I'd gladly stand up next to you, and defend her still today,’ he pulls himself up out of his wheel chair and sings standing on his one good leg, two Marines at his side. Google him, and watch him sing that song and see how proud he is to have served his country. We have to meet the needs of our veterans.”

A shiver an over me. I thought about my dear friend, Dave, who still has nightmares about his time in the service. Our veterans pay a bigger price than we sometimes realize, all so we can live free in this USA.

“I want to tell you about James Miller of Anne Arundel County,” Owings said. “Miller served in WWII, making four landings on the beach at Normandy. Over the years he never made a single claim. Through a new heart, and going blind, he never asked for a dime.

“Then, he came to us to ask for help getting a new heater. We worked every angle to get that heater installed for him and his wife, Ollie. I’ll never forget getting the call that he passed just four months later. He got that heater before he died, because he wanted to make sure Ollie would be kept warm. It tore me up.”

It tore me up, too, as I listened. Miller had given all. He’d seen the ravages of war, had felt the pain of losing comrades and friends, his body had paid the price, he lost his vision but kept his love for his wife and for his country to the very end.

Owings knows that sacrifice firsthand. A Vietnam veteran, he’d also served as Veterans Affairs secretary from 2004 to 2007, first appointed by then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich. His talk to the Lions club and a roomful of invited veterans enlightened the audience in so many areas.

He spoke of the 80 new bills in the works to help our vets. Owings said 22 veterans daily die by their own hand. It is a problem we need to tackle. He spoke of the veterans trust fund and the animal service program, new last year. And yes, horse therapy is a part of it! He talked about veterans cemeteries, five in the state of Maryland, and all of them under expansion. Ten percent of all vets are buried in these cemeteries.

“Nobody buries more in state owned cemeteries then the state of Maryland,” he said.

Carroll County Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, was also at the event. He spoke of Carroll County and the example we set for the rest of the state when it comes to veterans.

“It’s all about action and Carroll County is committed to doing it right,” he said. “But, if one veteran is not getting the benefits he deserves, we are not doing it right.”

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Owings agreed.

“There are 10,000 veterans in Carroll County,” he told the crowd. “There are 371,620 veterans in Maryland. Of them, only 151,000 access the VA system. If you do nothing else today, write this down: veterans.MD.gov. It’s chockful of information for vets. It’s about outreach. Everybody knows somebody. Let them know!”

Earlier in the evening, veterans in the room were asked to stand so we could thank them for their selflessness and their bravery. Their sacrifice helped advance the cause of freedom and peace and we all wanted them to know that we are a better nation because of their service.

As the evening drew to a close, Freedom District Lions Club presented a check for $500 to the Carroll County Veterans Independence Project, the local nonprofit whose goal is to provide services to the veterans living in Carroll County and nearby communities.

Because they could not give money to Owings, the Lions Club presented him with a mini club banner. He thanked them and then added with a smile, “It’s not 22 acres, but I appreciate it.”

It’s good to have reminders in life of the things we should perpetually be grateful for. Our veterans top that list.

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