Want to Help Veterans? Don’t Go It Alone

Why the most meaningful change, especially for veterans, is achieved as a team.

This Fourth of July, as Americans commemorate freedom and celebrate the people who help maintain it, you might wonder how best to honor those who served in the military.

I’ve tackled this challenge from both sides, as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and a leader at a large company committed to hiring veterans and giving them a place to grow.

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Making a real difference for veterans requires cooperation from a number of stakeholders.

My two decades in the Air Force and additional years on the “civilian” side taught me this valuable lesson: You can’t do it by yourself.

Making a real difference requires cooperation from a number of stakeholders, including industry, nonprofits, academia and the governmental sector.

Whether it’s rooting out homelessness — veterans represent nearly 10 percent of the total homeless population — training and educating vets, ensuring they have access to healthcare or simply a warm meal, the most sustainable campaigns are achieved by a team with a wide collection of talents, resources and experiences.

When your way isn’t the best way

Going it alone is guaranteed to limit your success. I learned this lesson during 20 years in the Air Force while stationed and deployed across the globe (and yes, that’s me in the photo above, performing a flight test mission in 1993 at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California — in case you’re wondering, I’m standing in a NC-141A Starlifter).

My transition to UPS, in hindsight, was quite logical. As a loadmaster for 17 years, I was well-versed in logistics, tasked with ensuring passengers and cargo were delivered on time to support national and global humanitarian and military operations.

I was a first sergeant during the final three years of my Air Force career. I often joke that a first sergeant in the Air Force is like a human resources manager on steroids.

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We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines just as veterans need us the most.

A first sergeant provides a dedicated focal point for all readiness, health, morale, welfare and quality-of-life issues within his or her organization. My job was to take care of the 250 airmen in my squadron — and their families.

The job was a 24/7 commitment. I was at the hospital when a troop was hurt or when a wife or female service member gave birth. I notified a service member when someone in their family passed away.

I was responsible for implementing discipline ordered by the commander. Through thick and thin, we got the mission done, and I was blessed enough to welcome home every troop from my squadron.

I learned that you can’t take the same leadership approach for every challenge. You have to know what motivates people. You have to be flexible. You can’t say it’s my way or the highway.

I often return to this lesson when crafting new ways to help veterans. I seek input from as many people as possible. I try to avoid rigid strategies.

Finding your role

To be clear, this shouldn’t discourage you from doing everything possible to serve those who have performed the ultimate service for their country. We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines just as veterans need us the most.

As military members return home, many veterans will need a job. More than that, they’ll need a place that allows them to grow.

It’s why UPS recently met its commitment to hire more than 50,000 veterans by 2018 and serve 50,000 employee volunteer hours helping veterans and Veterans Service Organizations.

I see the power of collaboration in my role as President of VETLANTA, a military veterans organization made up of locally based companies’ veteran business resource groups, academia, government organizations and veteran-affiliated nonprofits.

What started out as a novel idea by a couple of people has since morphed into so much more.

We work with volunteers from the Coca-Cola Company, Home Depot, AT&T, SunTrust, Hire Heroes USA, Georgia Tech, Emory University and the McKesson Corporation. Our goal is to make Atlanta the top destination for veterans.

At one prominent event we assisted 75 homeless veterans. Each veteran received a suit or dress, dress shirts, resume assistance, a meal and the opportunity to talk to more than two dozen organizations providing assistance and potential employment.

This event required extensive planning and coordination among volunteers from the Atlanta area and beyond.

I was honored to witness the efforts of so many organizations in action. The event showcased why a team is so much more valuable than an individual taking on an enormous task.

Getting real results

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A nation that forgets its veterans is lost and bound to fail.

This is no easy mission. A common stereotype is that homeless veterans are older, almost an outlier of sorts, or had dishonorable careers.

In reality, the problem spans the demographic spectrum — female veterans are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Many are women who served honorably but had trouble finding a job upon returning home.

VETLANTA and UPS hosted Army Sergeant Major Ray Chandler before his retirement. A nation that forgets its veterans is lost and bound to fail, Ray said.

He is right. We must do better.

Another common misnomer is that serving veterans is best left to … veterans. Sure, wearing the uniform provides us a valuable perspective.

But remember, diversity of thought is crucial for tackling a problem of any consequence. Don’t let a lack of military service preclude you from getting involved.

It’s also important to partner with those who have a track record and the wherewithal to get real results. I’d encourage you to find charities in your local area that devote most of their resources to veterans, with minimal overhead costs. Do your homework.

And before plowing ahead with your own plan, figure out how best to use your skills in tandem with other highly motivated people.

Your community, and veterans everywhere, will be better off for it.

This article was reprinted and modified from its original format. 

Lloyd Knight is Global Freight Forwarding Senior Director at UPS, where he oversees the International Air Freight Lane Management Group. He is also co-founding member and President of VETLANTA.

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