A time of need: The pursuit of service for the veterans of Scottsdale

A Young Marines member walks in Scottsdale’s Parada del Sol Parade in February. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Seeking a way to bridge the gap between veterans and the general public, one city councilman says he believes a Scottsdale Veterans Commission could be a hometown effort to bring together various groups and organizations for the greater good.

Scottsdale City Council is considering developing a municipal group comprised of veterans, volunteers and residents to link, honor and highlight the unsung heroes of America.

As of May 2016, there is an estimated 21,681,000 men and women who served their country within the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and about 522,382 veterans in the state of Arizona, according to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report.

Of the more-than-half-a-million Arizona veterans, a large majority live in the Maricopa County area, and about 45 percent are older than 65 years old.

The City of Scottsdale has for many years been a champion of veterans and has a rich history involving enlisted men and women.

It is a Vietnam War Commemorative Partner, a sponsor of the Hidden Heroes program, participates in the East Valley Regional Veterans Treatment Court, hosts an annual Veterans Day Commemoration and showcases a Marine Mural honoring Lance Cpl. Jacob Hug, a local Marine who lost his life in May 2015.

Moreover, the municipality most recently approved an agreement to build a veterans’ memorial shade plaza at the Scottsdale Airport featuring a pre-World War II Stearman aircraft. Thunderbird II Airfield opened in 1942, where 5,500 pilot cadets received their primary flight training before the war’s end. Scottsdale was also the site of a German prisoner war camp.

The city was even settled by U.S. Army Chaplain Winfield Scott in the late 1800s.

On Feb. 12, the City Council hosted a formal discussion on the city’s boards and commissions, which included a pitch by Scottsdale City Councilman Guy Phillips to establish a Veterans Commission.

The meeting included several community members and veterans who attended the meeting at Scottsdale City Hall to show their support of Mr. Phillips’ idea.

While the proposal included a few suggestions and examples of what a Veterans Commission for Scottsdale may look like, it would be an advisory group to provide guidance to Scottsdale City Council, much like the Neighborhood Advisory Commission or Environmental Quality Advisory Board.

At the meeting, council directed city staff to draft an ordinance establishing a Veterans Commission to advise the council on matters related to veterans, advocate and promote veteran services, obtain grants, and make recommendations to the council for allocation to veteran groups and/or other organizations.

The City Council will vote at a later date to approve the ordinance.

Veterans who attended the meeting to support the idea vocalized the need for support of their comrade-in-arms.

Scottsdale City Councilman Guy Phillips proposed the idea of a Veterans Commission to his colleagues. (File photo)

Standing with the veterans

Mr. Phillips, a longtime Scottsdale resident in the midst of his second City Council term, came up with the Veterans Commission idea through personal experience.

“Before I was on the council my lead man in my company joined the Marines and we keep in contact to this day,” Mr. Phillips, owner of an air conditioning contracting business explained.

“His experiences have made me sympathetic to the veterans of our country. Couple that with my own experience of not qualifying for enlistment because of my asthma at the time, I have always felt short of doing my duty for this great country of ours.”

After being elected to council, Mr. Phillips has been asked to speak at veteran memorial events in Scottsdale, which he says made me even more patriotic and sympathetic to veterans.

“I thought that if there was a mechanism that could bring these various groups together it could benefit them as a whole. I began talking to these groups and individual veterans and they all agreed this could be a benefit to our community, so I brought the idea to council in the form of a Veteran Commission,” he said.

Mr. Phillips’ hope for the commission is that various veteran groups will come together through education, advocating and information gathering.

“My main goal is to hand this over to the new commission for them to get together and decide the best route to take,” Mr. Phillips said.

“They will know a lot more than I so if the council decides to proceed it will then be in the new commission’s court to follow through. After meeting so many wonderful veterans and veteran organizations, I have no doubt this meeting of the minds will result in a lasting commission that will be an integral part of our community.”

At the Feb. 12 City Council meeting, several local veterans provided public comment to support the creation of the commission.

Representative Jay Lawrence and his wife Judy — both veterans in their own right — were in attendance. Mr. Lawrence told the Council that his committee within the Arizona House of Representatives, titled Military and Veterans Affairs, is focusing on veteran suicide.

“There are 500,000 veterans in Arizona, probably all of you — 50, 60, 70 percent of the people in Scottsdale know or are associated in someway with someone who is a veteran,” Mr. Lawrence, a Scottsdale resident, said.

“The commission that Councilman Phillips has suggested will deal with all that the general and the others spoke of, and be able to bring them together into a viable place for veterans to get information. I know I am personally, my committee in the House of Representatives is working on veteran suicides.”

Vietnam veteran and Scottsdale resident Vernon Bagley says about 11 years ago he started a nonprofit organization to address veteran needs not addressed through the federal and state governments.

“What I hope this commission does is look very seriously of how we can reach out as a city to the citizens of this city who are veterans or veteran spouses and see what we can do to make their lives better, because they — these spouses — have given as much as the person who served to this country,” Mr. Bagley said.

Scottsdale resident Brig. Gen. Pete Palmer, who is involved in various veteran organizations, including the Veterans Heritage Project, listed some value propositions he would like the Veterans Commission to support.

His propositions included supporting Scottsdale-veteran related and owned businesses, supporting the nonprofit community, addressing family members of active service members, addressing military issues such as PTSD and other injuries and capturing military history.

A growing need for compassion

According to the VA, as of 2016, there are:

  • 4.26 million veterans receiving VA Disability Compensation
  • 515,999 veterans rated 100 percent disabled
  • 292,297 veterans receiving VA pension
  • 377,120 spouses receiving Dependency and Indemnity Compensation
  • 846,777 veterans compensated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Moreover, many veterans are succumbing to the tragic choice to die by suicide.

The VA reported that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day, and six of the 20 individuals were recent users of Veterans Health Administration services.

The Veterans Affairs department is leading efforts to understand suicide risk factors, develop evidence-based prevention programs and prevent veteran suicide through a public health approach, according to the organization. As part of its work, the VA has analyzed data at the national and state levels.

According to a 2016 report, Arizona was significantly higher than the national veteran suicide rate.

Of 6,079 national veteran suicides in 2016, there were 227 in Arizona, the report shows. The majority of these deaths were in the 55-74 age range.

Two veterans who served in the Korean War were a part of the Parada del Sol Parade. (Independent Newsmedia/Bret McKeand)

Taking the lead

Scottsdale resident and Army veteran, Carter Unger, is familiar with the needs and up-hill battles veterans in the local community face, especially after returning home.

On its face, Mr. Unger says he supports the principal and general thought of the Veterans Commission, but wants to see some heavy thought go into the creation of the group.

Carter Unger

“I’m very supportive of anything that will help with veterans, they deserve some assistance. They’re an invaluable part of our economy and fabric of our community,” he said. “I would love to see some further thought of an end goal — what’s the desire, what’s the mission? What are we trying to accomplish?”

Mr. Unger said depending on how the commission shapes-up, he’s considering putting his name in the hat to be considered for the new board.

“I don’t think just one more program or board for the sake of it is beneficial because ‘we’re doing something for the veterans,’ is of value,” he explained.

“It needs to be further vetted and explored so that end goal and purpose can be better-defined. I’m optimistic that it can be.”

Mr. Unger joined the United States Army after the 9/11 attacks. He went on to help train the Afghanistan National Police along the Pakistani border. Now, he’s president of Scottsdale-based Spring Creek Development.

The needs he sees within the veteran community not only includes mental health awareness, help combating PTSD, suicidal thoughts and issues alike, but assistance in gaining employment and owning their own businesses.

“From a veteran who has PTSD — my driver killed himself after Afghanistan — a lot of roots of those issues is a big part of what they’re coming home to,” Mr. Unger explained. “A big focus should be on how the city works with veteran business owners — veteran whoevers — that allow them to get a step up. Myself, as a veteran-owned company, not that I want preferential treatment, but a vast majority are not successfully rehabilitated into society. It would be beneficial to find ways, and it doesn’t have to be monetary.”

Mr. Unger clarified, ownership of Spring Creek Development is still within his family, and he only serves as president.

He presented suggestions such as cutting red-tape on certain areas of the business-ownership process, and explained that when he applied to Chandler Fire Department after returning home, he received extra points on his written exam score for his military experience.

“If the City of Scottsdale is looking at two companies for a bid or something, a veteran-owned company or company that employees veterans might get some type of added step-up for that in an apples to apples comparison and everything else being equal,” he said.

When asked if the idea of a Veterans Commission is more appropriate for the state-level government versus a municipality, Mr. Unger disagreed.

“It really should be more appropriate for the federal, then state, then local municipalities and communities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. I can tell you from personal experiences I’ve had with some bad encounters with the VA, we need to do it from the lowest level up,” he said.

“The City of Scottsdale can take very — hopefully — tangible goals to accomplish and be a good example for the state.”

Pointing to recent discussions held at the Scottsdale City Council dais on issues of an anti-discrimination ordinance for the LGBT community and a texting-while-driving ban which resulted in the conclusion that those issues weren’t appropriate for the city to regulate, Mr. Unger says that isn’t always the answer.

“Sometimes you have to step up. While it should be a more unified approach, sometimes it takes a smaller municipality to take the lead,” he said.

The Veterans Heritage Project works with students and veterans to share the stories of America’s war heroes. (Photo courtesy of Veterans Heritage Project)

Bridging the gap

The Veterans Heritage Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, with a growing footprint within Scottsdale, connecting students with veterans to tell their stories.

The organization offers education enrichment programming partnering with veterans as primary sources of history to motivate and inspire students to stay in school and become responsible, active citizens, Executive Director Michelle DiMuro says.

VHP employs two staff members, and works with 125 volunteers to operate approximately 30 school chapters across 20 Arizona cities with the potential for growth.

“Over the past few years VHP has doubled the number of school partners, increased veterans served by 80 percent to more than 2,000 interviewed, and expanded our reach to more than 35,000 additional students through veteran presentations,” Ms. DiMuro says, noting that there are 38 interested schools and a wait list of 640 veteran participants.

(Photo courtesy of Veterans Heritage Project)

In Scottsdale, schools with a VHP chapter includes Chaparral High School, Notre Dame Preparatory and a handful of Cave Creek Unified School District schools.

“Guided by a volunteer teacher advisor in their school, students spend the fall semester interviewing WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold Water, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan and War on Terror veterans, research history, and write veteran’s experiences in essay form,” Ms. DiMuro explained.

In the spring, the school chapters are partnered together with a lead publishing chapter. They ultimately collaborate to put together a publication of a student-published hardbound book, “Since Your Asked.” The video taped interviews and books are preserved at the Library of Congress for future generations, Ms. DiMuro said.

The Phoenix I edition of this year’s “Since You Asked,” will be released on March 31, at the DoubleTree Resort in Scottsdale. The Phoenix II edition will be released on May 4, at Notre Dame Preparatory.

The events include patriotic music, awarding of scholarships, a keynote speaker by Korea War Prisoner of War David Mills, and an opportunity for the public to interact with the veterans featured in the books.

Veteran Heritage Project has an initiative called “Bridging the Gap,” which Ms. DiMuro described as a platform for creating understanding and appreciation for service members and bringing awareness to the civilian population.

“The gap is between the less than 1 percent of the population that serves in the military and the 99 percent of the civilian population that have no connection to military service,” she said. “Americans are detached from the conflicts and those waging them, having a limited understanding of how the military operates and the impact on the family.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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