NOW Keeps the American Dream Alive for Veterans
By Janna M. Hall
When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the National Anthem, the nation was outraged. “He’s disrespecting the flag! He’s disrespecting our troops!” many argued. The national conversation shifted towards the action itself and less about the real “why” behind it all. Very few journalists covered Kaepernick addressing the concerns that inspired the peaceful protest, such as the men and women who’ve lost their lives to police brutality or the inner city children who, due to lack of education and resources, get caught up in the dangerous lifestyle that renders them dead or incarcerated. What’s arguably the most interesting and ironic fact of all, though, is that while many believe his protest is a slap in the face to our troops who’ve fought for this great nation, he’s explicitly stated that he’s also kneeling for the rights, health, and care of those same troops after they’ve returned home.
There are 21.8 million veterans in the United States—800,000 in Virginia alone. Of those 21.8 million, roughly 20 commit suicide every day due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stemming from both combat and sexual assault while deployed. In addition to mental disorders, an alarming amount of our soldiers return home with very little resources and benefits that ensure a stable, prosperous life for themselves and their family. So when Kaepernick kneels during the National Anthem, his intent is not to disrespect the flag or the troops. In fact, his mission is to support our troops in a way that many in this country do not.
Richmond’s own Veterans for Veterans NOW organization is the exception. Founded by United States Navy veteran Henry Mack, this organization’s mission is to ensure that those who fought for this nation’s safety and freedom may enjoy those liberties upon their return. His passion grew out of experiencing first-hand the troubles veterans face when filing claims for benefits.
“I came back from Vietnam after five combat tours, and I filed a claim,” Mack remembers. “It took 30 years—from 1968 to 1998—to complete the process. With all the things I learned during that time, I knew I needed to help other veterans.”
Mack immediately began pro bono work, helping veterans fill out the application and file their claims. What began as a labor of love turned into a fully-formed 501(c)(3), Veterans Helping Veterans NOW (No Other Way).
Through VHVNow, Mack and his assistant James Adams, a United States Army veteran, work on disability claims for veterans in the Richmond area, and help get the rights restored for many Americans who were jailed immediately after returning from Vietnam.
“A lot of us coming out of Vietnam were sent to jail because we ensured democracy overseas and refused to tolerate 2nd-class citizenship at home,” Mack explains. “Our organization has a re-entry chairman that helps get their rights restored, helps them pay off fines, and works to re-establish their right to vote.”
And that’s just the beginning of what they offer Richmond’s veterans. For the thousands that return from war with PTSD, they recommend proper mental health facilities and specialists that help them work through that trauma. For homeless veterans, they seek to find adequate housing, and if qualified, assist them in becoming homeowners. Statistics also show that 25% of women in the military have experienced sexual trauma, and Mack and staff work with them, too. Overcoming that trauma and filing claims for their benefits is top priority for the organization, and they work diligently to provide resources for those women. All-in-all, VHVNOW is the ultimate support system for those who have risked their lives for the USA. They’ve made the ultimate sacrifice, and Mack has made it his life mission to streamline the process to receiving benefits, disability, and any other need of our military veterans.
“The difference between our veterans’ organization and others is that we’ve actually gone through the process,” James Adams explains. He spent six years in the U.S. Army, and with the organization’s help was able to receive his benefits in five months. “It took Mr. Mack 30 years to get a claim done, and we’re finding that it happens to most people of color when they begin the process.”
Knowing first-hand how difficult it is for all veterans, but particularly people of color, they’re proud to be able to shorten the process and get them what’s rightfully theirs.
Even with their inside knowledge and experience, there are still roadblocks encountered along the way. For example, if a veteran files a claim and is denied, they have between 60 days to a year to file a Notice of Disagreement and receive a second chance. It’s a common misconception that simply being a veteran and fighting for your country ensures you benefits and resources. Mack explains that you must have a solid, well-rounded claim.
“Many people get denied because they lack a claim that plainly states the facts,” Mack explains. “You must remember the date, time, conditions, the unit, and the location.”
“It all comes down to presentation,” Adams adds. “And that’s where Mack comes in. He lays out what they need, and asks the important questions. What claim are you filing? What do you have to support your information? Where and when did it happen? And it has to be presented in a nice fashion.”
Though an arduous process, Mack, Adams, and VHVNow has a 99% success rate. Mack makes it a point, though, to stress the importance of what he calls the trinity: physical, mental, and spiritual health. Food and money will soon depart, so while they will work on your claim, it’s important to have those three things in tact. That’s key, and oftentimes a factor many veterans neglect while focusing on the financial aspect.
Hundreds of veterans in the Richmond and surrounding areas have benefitted from the pro bono work put forth by the dedicated VHVNow organization, but Mack admits that he still needs help from politicians.
“Governor Terry McAuliffe has put forth major effort to turn around the homeless population,” he says. “He pushes the idea that no veteran should be homeless, hungry, and without health care. So I’m proud of that. But we also need more financial resources. That’s what drives these types of organizations.”
In addition to financial support, Adams believes a true change will occur when more veterans are put to work in the fields that they have the most experience in: veteran’s affairs.
“We have a lot of civilians who work at the V.A., and in many towns, those people could care less about how they treat the veterans. Our next president needs to ensure that the V.A. is properly served by making sure veterans actually work there. It’s hard for someone to serve what they don’t understand.”
Their other concern is that we as a country are ill-prepared for the influx of traumatized troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the system is now overloaded. People aren’t getting care quickly enough because we don’t have enough staff there to make sure it happens. Politicians need to make sure enough money is set aside to hire more people, and those people need to be veterans.
VHVNOW is continually working with the Richmond community, including high schools and JROTC programs to allow our youth to serve our local veterans. They work diligently to raise money to support their efforts, efforts which are primarily funded by Mack and Adams. What better way to respect, honor, and sacrifice for the men and women who have sacrificed it all for our freedom?
“We’ve got your back, and that’s the true American Dream,” Mack reinforces. “Veterans have defended this country and preserved the American way of life, and we owe it to give back to them.”