John Ballinger had always been a take-charge kind of guy. So in 2010, after seeing the deplorable conditions at an at-risk elementary school in Chattanooga, Tenn., the former Army maintenance officer volunteered one hour a week, simply talking to fifth-graders about what he called “everyday stuff”: the meaning of the American flag and geography lessons from his travels around the country. By the end of the year, the students’ teacher and principal had both noticed an improvement in behavior and focus.
That experience inspired Get Veterans Involved (GVI), a nonprofit in Ooltewah, Tenn., that pairs returning combat veterans with economically disadvantaged students. Through GVI (getvetsinvolved.org), vets will mentor more than 250 students this year.
“In the military, they teach us how to stand up and be proud,” says Ballinger, something the GVI vets try to pass along to their young proteges. “All those things are embedded in us as veterans: character, morals and ethics.”
At all five schools where GVI volunteers mentored last year, a group of elementary students now hoists the flag each morning before class. Previously, most didn’t understand the meaning of the flag, and some had never heard of Betsy Ross.
And the kids aren’t the only ones who benefit. “I realized how damaged I was emotionally from my deployments in the military,” Ballinger says. “I got a sense of mission and purpose by helping [the kids].”
Volunteer organizations across the country help returning military heroes and their families transition to civilian life. Here is a sampling of the organizations dedicated to serving our veterans:
Homes for Our Troops—Taunton, Mass.
Launched in 2004 by a contractor, Home for Our Troops builds mortgage-free, specially equipped homes for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who sustained multiple amputations, paralysis and other severe injuries in combat after 9/11. So far, the organization has constructed nearly 200 homes nationwide.
Returning veterans under age 25 face an unemployment rate of 19 percent, says Larry Trabucco, executive director of VetForce1, a group that recruits “military-friendly employers” to mentor vets and hire them for internships, part-time jobs and full-time careers. A second VetForce1 chapter launches in Daytona Beach, Fla., this month, with 137 more nationwide already planned.
Honor Flight Network—Springfield, Ohio
When retired Air Force captain, private pilot and physician assistant Earl Morse learned that some of his senior patients yearned to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., but lacked the means to do so, he vowed to make it happen. Then he asked for help from other pilots. Since 2005, the Honor Flight Network has escorted nearly 139,000 World War II veterans to the nation’s capital. Moving forward, the group plans also to send veterans from more recent conflicts.