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Ron Lockwood was honorably discharged from the United States Marine Corps in 1972 at Kaneohe Bay. He had $107 in his pocket, his hair was “high-and-tight” and most of his clothing was issued by the military.
He was a Vietnam War veteran and he wanted to start a new life away from the Marine Corps. More importantly, he wanted a college education.
The first Hawaii Veterans Summit is scheduled for June 21-22 at the Hawaii Convention Center. The summit provides an opportunity to explore programs and benefits, as well as connecting veterans with more than 50 different veterans groups, potential educational outlets, employers and mental and physical health providers.
The summit is currently sold out at 500 veterans. Organizers suggest verifying attendance before going.
There were roadblocks from the beginning. After transportation, tuition and books, he was left with $22. The GI Bill check to cover his tuition payments wouldn’t come for six to eight weeks.
There was also discrimination, including at the University of Hawaii Manoa. “If you kept your mouth shut you got it easier,” he recalls. “You didn’t say much as you were ridiculed by the instructors and your fellow classmates for serving in an illegal and immoral war.”
So veterans went underground. Lockwood grew out his hair and kept his head down. During his time at UH, Lockwood says, he never interacted socially with another veteran even though he knew they were there. Graduate school was the same. “When I hit grad school and heard my peers label me ‘crazy psycho’ I realized the lessons took; and it would take decades to overcome.”
Figuring out how to take advantage of his GI Bill benefits was a challenge, a labyrinth without a guide. Enrolling in health care with the Veterans Administration was even worse.
“There was a disconnect there,” he says. “I just decided to get a job, my own health care and forget about all of it.”
Today, Lockwood is working hard to make sure young veterans are not disenfranchised like he was. As the commander of the Diamond Head Post for the Veterans of Foreign Wars he’s raising money for the Student Veterans of America chapter to develop its space on campus in order to connect with other veterans. He was able to secure funding for two computers and a printer to help the student vets complete paperwork for benefits.
He also counsels young veterans on how to take full advantage of entitlements created to help them financially and within the VA health care system.
“We are here for each other, that is the bottom line,” he says.
Bridging the generational gaps among veterans like Lockwood from the Vietnam era, those from even longer-ago conflicts like World War II and Korea, and the younger vets who are coming back from service in Iraq and Afghanistan is vital to the continued survival of veterans organizations. As older vets drop out, new blood is needed to keep up advocacy for benefits and treatment programs, among other needs.
“VFW and Legion, they have this reputation of, you know, a smoke-filled bar where people are just telling war stories — which might have been true 15 to 20 years ago but that isn’t how it is now,” says Carlos Santana, an Iraq War veteran and staffer in U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono’s office who is chair of Hawaii’s first State Veterans Summit, scheduled for Friday and Saturday at the Hawaii Convention Center.
He envisions the summit as bringing together multiple generations in a place where they will realize they are a lot more similar than they think.
“Not only what they went through in military service, but also what they went through when they got out,” Santana says. “The kind of transition from military to civilian life.”
Two of the summit breakout sessions will address head-on the generational divide within veterans organizations.
Santana says younger vets are drawn to more physically active organizations like Team Rubicon, which has a strong service orientation, or Team Red White and Blue, which combines physical and social as well as volunteer opportunities for veterans to create camaraderie.
“If we can get the younger generation to learn why VFW and the older groups are important is great and to get the older veterans to realize why is Rubicon, RWB, why are those important. That is when things will start to mesh,” he says.
For one thing, he says, veterans need a strong voice in Washington, D.C. “At the national level VFW, the American Legion, and (Disabled American Veterans) do a lot of legislative advocacy and a lot of the benefits that the younger generations are enjoying right now is because the older generation fought for it,” he says.
Those legislative efforts include the GI Bill and other education benefits awarded to veterans leaving the service. They have also advocated for expanding VA medical coverage including for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, and currently are working for expansion of that coverage for “Blue Water Navy” veterans.
Hawaii’s percentage of veterans age 18 to 29 is almost twice the national average. Veterans who’ve served since the first Gulf War make up over 50 percent of the state’s veterans. According to the Hawaii Office of Veterans’ Services, of the 112,000 veterans in the state, only 42 percent are taking advantage of VA medical benefits.
Ron Han, director of the state office, says one reason to get more younger vets involved in traditional organizations is to understand them better — why they aren’t reaching out for help that is available.
Han found one reason the post-9/11 veterans don’t click with the VA and veterans groups is because their time in the service over the last 20 years has been very different from the previous generation.
“A third or fourth tour is almost the norm,” he says, compared to the Vietnam era when it was usually just one or two tours.
They transition out and want to try and make it on their own in the private sector. “They don’t want handouts,” Han says.
When he explains what might be available not just for them, but for their families, including post 9/11 GI benefits for dependents, or VA home loans, he says many don’t know the programs exist or that they are eligible.
Yet strength in numbers is critical to bringing about changes or demanding new resources within the state, Han says.
Rolly Alvarado will be leading one of the summit sessions, as a captain of the Honolulu chapter of Team Red White and Blue. Younger vets want more action, he says, and they don’t see the older more established vets groups as out working in the community.
They “are huge into civil service,” he says, “so being patriotic is a part of who we are, but the younger generation is not in line with that.”
Lockwood bristles a bit at that.
“Yes, we proudly march in parades, but that isn’t all we do,” he says.
This year VFW members performed 137,625 hours of community service and raised $534,060. That service included driving veterans to hospitals on all islands, rebuilding flag poles for tsunami-damaged schools in Samoa, offering one-on-one counseling claims for the VA, providing low-cost dinners for veterans in need, and mentoring veterans through Drug Court. In addition, the VFW renders honors at funerals for veterans at local cemeteries, including at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
As a former student at UH Manoa, Alvarado has seen Lockwood making a difference with students.
“I think the genuine connection should be the goal for a lot of those organizations so there is not this wedge between different generations of veterans,” Alvarado says.
Lockwood views the generation gap partly as a function of numbers. There just aren’t as many younger vets since military service has become an all-volunteer force — not the combination of enlisted and draftees of the Vietnam War.
Lockwood is a leading recruiter for the VFW in Hawaii. Current membership is around 4,540 and his goal is to reach 5,000 members in the coming year.
With that block, he believes they will have a stronger voice in state government.
The future depends on it.
“Who are our veterans in 2020 or 2030?” Lockwood asks. “Who is going to help them if not the Gulf War and the Iraq and Afghanistan guys? That is our responsibility to train them so they can help.”
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