2010-04-30 / Community

Serving Those Who Served Our Nation

New Organization Has Rockaway Roots
By Howard Schwach

GI served Vietnam veteran Stephen Smith is dedicated to helping other vets. GI served Vietnam veteran Stephen Smith is dedicated to helping other vets. It has been true in all of America’s wars over the last 140 years that those coming home from war needed the help of the community in moving back into civilian life.

After some wars, such as World War II, the soldiers, sailors and marines were hailed as heroes.

In others, such as Vietnam, the homecoming service members were, in many cases, vilified as “baby killers.”

While veterans returning from the front in Iraq and Afghanistan face neither extreme, many of them face difficult barriers in moving back into the mainstream.

They need help with medical problems caused by war.

They need help in getting the GI benefits due them because they served their nation well.

Those who were severely wounded need a handy hospital and transportation. Many can’t find civilian employment and become homeless.

That’s where Rockaway resident Stephen Smith comes in. Smith, a Vietnam veteran who has been active with the Queens chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has started a new organization, dedicated to insuring that returning vets get the services that they deserve.

The organization he founded along with several other vets of his generation is called “Vets Helping Vets, Inc.” and right now it resides in his cell phone and in the South Ozone park apartment of one of his vice presidents.

“Our mission is simple,” Smith told The Wave at its Rockaway office on Monday afternoon. “We want to reach out and advocate for veterans’ rights – not just Vietnam or World War II vets, but all combat vets who fought in all of our wars.”

Smith points to the decline in veterans organizations and the number of people who join them.

“The local American Legion lost its hall and now has to meet at the K of C,” he said. “The VFW is almost extinct. Vets have to have someplace to go for assistance.”

“There are few veterans services in Rockaway,” Smith added.

He sees keeping the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital at St. Alban’s in government hands as one of his major goals.

“The privatization of services to vets is getting out of hand,” he says. “We have to insure that vets will receive the medical care they need no matter what personal resources they have. Privatization often forces vets to look elsewhere for healthcare.”

He also wants to open a food pantry at the Veterans Center in Woodhaven, so that homeless vets and those out of work can get a meal and some food parcels to keep them going.

Smith is looking for some free office space and some volunteers to counsel veterans about their rights and to make sure those services are provided.

“It’s a small beginning,” he conceded, saying that he expected his new organization to grow as the need grows.

“This is important work,” he said, adding that it was important both for the vets and for society as a whole.

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