A new Durango nonprofit, Salute to Veterans, hosted a public unveiling Monday amid increasing concern that public agencies aren’t doing enough to help military veterans reintegrate into society.
Salute to Veterans is modeled on a Montrose organization, Welcome Home Montrose. The Durango organization aims to enlist volunteers and open a storefront that could serve as a place for veterans to get help.
The group’s public event, held Monday at the Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall, comes less than a month after revelations that the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs system concealed wait times as veterans died waiting for appointments.
“The federal government is not doing enough,” said Ron Tyner, president of Salute to Veterans.
He said the VA has a backlog of 685,000 new or reopened claims. He added that an average of 42 veterans a day attempt to commit suicide.
“That is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
The nonprofit debuted with a strongly supported event. State Sen. Ellen Roberts, State Rep. Michael McLachlan, retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Ronald Fogleman and Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad owner Al Harper spoke. The Bar D Wranglers performed a patriotic program.
Tyner said the group wants to work with existing veterans organizations – everything from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to American Legion – not supplant them.
“I want to assure them we are here to help, not get in your way,” he said.
The event was short on specifics of what exactly the new group will do. Speakers said much of that remains to be determined by volunteers.
Salute to Veterans is nonpartisan and nonpolitical, Tyner said.
“It’s not about elephants and donkeys,” he said. “It’s about veterans.”
Roberts and others said it’s important veterans are treated better than returning Vietnam veterans were a generation ago. “It’s incumbent on us to make sure – never again,” said Roberts.
Others discussed how few Americans have any real connection to the military. Fogleman said there are fewer than 2 million Americans serving in all military branches, the guard and reserves, in a nation of more than 300 million.
Fogleman also highlighted women veterans, whom he called “invisible veterans.” Women make up 8 percent of military veterans and 12 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re often poorly served when they return home, he said.
Fogleman said the Department of Veterans Affairs has the second-largest budget of any federal agency, behind only the Department of Defense. The agency’s $95.6 billion budget still can’t provided enough help, he said.
The needs are harder to meet in times when veterans’ causes are not fashionable, Fogleman said.
“Americans have notoriously short memories,” he said. “Our commitment has got to be something that lasts not for months, or even years, but for decades.”