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Giving more than “thanks for your service” comment

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Giving more than “thanks for your service” comment

By Doug Wilson & Kari McDonough | 10:10 a.m. Feb. 19, 2016

With the largest county concentration of military personnel and the third-highest number of veteran residents in America, San Diego County is now the nation’s top destination for newly returning veterans and their families.

Many of San Diego County’s outstanding public and private sector veteran support programs serve as national models. Yet both here and across the country, there are few channels for easy, direct and human connections to — and for — the broad range of citizens who want to do more than say “thanks for your service” but don’t know how. Simply put, what’s missing in community reintegration efforts across the country are large parts of the community.

A recent survey commissioned by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce found that many local veterans feel a loss of community during transition. They’ve lost their service structure and support networks and claim almost unanimously that civilians don’t understand them or really care about the challenges they face. They’re frustrated at being mislabeled mythical heroes or unstable threats, and want to be recognized for what they are: fellow citizens who have seen and done things in service to their country that most other Americans have not, and now want to assimilate back home in the ways that most other Americans have.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly reported that they don’t want another website. They’re not looking for phone mazes or another Yelp. They want personal, human connections to people who know the community and whose firsthand advice and information they can trust.

This is a meaningful finding for Americans who want to do more, but have little time and don’t know how to use it effectively. “Bridging the civilian-military divide” is becoming empty rhetoric, bemoaning an unfortunate situation but providing no tangible channels for Americans with good intentions and busy lives to turn limited time into productive contribution.

In San Diego County, that’s about to change.

Over the past 15 months, a coalition of public and private sector San Diego County community leaders has been working on an initiative to enable citizens to respond to veteran and military family relocation and reintegration questions within their own time frames and their own areas of professional experience and expertise: education, health, business, recreation, arts, community service and the host of other areas which collectively make up the communities in which we live. Vets’ Community Connections, (VCC) is based on a simple premise: the most effective way Americans with good will but limited time can support veterans is to talk to them; give them information and advice they can trust; and thus help build the community networks they are looking for.

Are you an auto mechanic, electrician or plumber or other small-business owner? Do your children participate in after-school sports programs? Are you in community theater? Work at a museum? Work at the zoo? Do you have budget management expertise? Know how to help someone prepare for a career in health services? Know where to go for legal advice? Then you — and thousands of Americans like you, from all walks of life — have information relevant to veterans and their families. Are you willing to take a call from one of them from time to time? Then you now know how to do more than say “thanks for your service.”

Thanks to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the community has a better understanding of what returning military are looking for. Thanks to San Diego County leaders, who insisted that even a place with many military programs and resources needed a supplement for expanded citizen participation, the county was chosen as one of the three national pilots for the initiative (Phoenix and South Bend, Ind. are the others).

Thanks to the San Diego Veterans Coalition and the many veteran leaders who have participated in shaping VCC here, veteran and family views have been woven into its development from the start. And thanks to 2-1-1 San Diego, veterans and family members will have an easy-to-remember number to call to direct their inquiries to appropriate and willing community members from all walks of life.

Vets Community Connections launches in San Diego on Feb. 26. Now, if you want to know a truly effective way to do more than say “thanks for your service,” look in the mirror — and take just five minutes to sign up.

Wilson, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and McDonough, an organizational management specialist, are co-founders of Vets Community Connections. For information on how to participate in San Diego, go to www.vetscommunityconections.org