Veterans Freedom Center
Veterans Freedom Center
By Mike Ironside
Support our troops. Whether it’s displayed on a button, a bracelet, or a car magnet, patriotic Americans are proud to declare their support for our men and women in the military who dedicate their lives to maintain our freedom. It’s an honest and noble sentiment and a worthy call to action. And many do, in a variety of ways, as they should.
But after those veterans return, they don’t always make the transition from military to civilian life so easily. While unemployment rates for veterans overall are lower than the general population, unemployment rates among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are higher than average and higher than the rates for veterans of any other era. It’s estimated that as many as 20 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or one in five, suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Studies indicate that veterans suffer higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, often in an attempt to self-medicate in an effort to deal with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is making efforts to help troubled vets, a recent report estimates that as many as 22 veterans commit suicide each day. One might think that these tragedies are among younger vets but of those 22 deaths, about 15 or almost 70 percent are veterans older than 50. Some have dealt with depression or PTSD for years, undiagnosed and untreated.
Yes, we should support our troops but clearly, we should also support our veterans.
That’s exactly what the Veterans Freedom Center, a local grassroots nonprofit organization does. Cofounded by friends and veterans Jim Wagner and Al Rowell about four and a half years ago, the Veterans Freedom Center has grown to serve thousands of local and area vets. But it started from much more humble beginnings.
“The way it started, Jim Wagner had a garage down between 18th and 19th (Streets) in the alley,” explains cofounder Al Rowell, “and he was trying to rebuild an ’85 Monte Carlo. Me and him used to hang around and we started getting a few more vets and a few more, it got to be where we would have like 16 or 17 vets in his garage. Well, we ended up buying coffee makers and pizza makers.”
While the camaraderie with fellow veterans was a good thing, Wagner and Rowell realized two things: One, there were way too many people hanging around to make any progress on the car. “This ain’t gonna fly,” Rowell recalls thinking. “He ain’t gonna get his car done.” And two, all these veterans needed a place to hang out.
“We knew the need was there,” states Rowell, “and we kept approaching everybody and they said, ‘There’s no way you’ll get that off the ground, for one thing, there’s no money.’ ‘We’re not asking for money,’ (I said)
We’re asking how to…’ They all said it couldn’t be done.”
Wagner and Rowell took the initiative to do it anyway, the first step being to find a suitable location. “We ended up finding a building right across from (Wagner’s garage) that was a disaster,” Rowell recalls. “We spent almost two months in there, 12–16 hours a day, seven days a week getting it going. In fact, some of the guys that sit on our board now, we showed it to them when we first went in there and they said, ‘You’re going to do what with this?’ We had a drill press and a saw donated, right off the get-go. Hell, somebody gave us $20 for a gallon of paint, we were on top of the world back then.”
From those humble beginnings, Wagner and Rowell created the Veterans Freedom Center. Begun as a place for veterans to socialize, it quickly became a place for vets to learn new skills and share their experience. Outgrowing the first location, the VFC moved to its current location at 2245 Kerper Boulevard in December of 2011.
The new, larger location allowed the Veterans Freedom Center to expand its programs and services. The VFC includes a complete woodworking shop with a variety of power tools, almost all of which have been donated. Most popular are the scroll saws, used to make intricate designs in wood and wood lathes, which many vets use to make one-of-a-kind writing pens, sold to raise funds for the center. “They can do anything there and we’ll teach them any machine in there,” notes Rowell. “They can make their own stuff, make stuff for here that we sell.”
The Center has an exercise room with a treadmill, cycle and elliptical machines. An arts and crafts room is available for painting or craft projects. A large community room serves as a gathering place for socializing, including weekly tournaments in pool (Tuesdays), euchre (Wednesdays), and darts (Thursdays). Coffee is always available. A big screen TV hangs over a display of military uniforms, from a vintage World War I uniform through contemporary uniforms. Veterans can also make use of the VFC computer station.
In addition to onsite amenities, the Veterans Freedom Center hosts programs to assist vets in other ways. The “Give a Vet a Lift” Program uses a passenger van to provide a ride to local veterans needing to access the services of the VA hospital in Iowa City. (Veterans can schedule and obtain this transportation by calling the VAMC in Iowa City at 1-800-637-0128 extension 7061.)
Maybe most important is the VFC’s “Operation We Care.” A grassroots initiative, Operation We Care is designed to address the specific need of veterans and their families. Support is offered in a variety of forms, depending on the circumstances of the veteran in need. Examples have included financial aid for rent or mortgage payments, utilities, food, clothing, cleaning supplies, transportation, and medication. The Veterans Freedom Center accepts donations of wheelchairs or walkers, which they refurbish to give to disabled veterans or family members at no cost.
Rowell explains that oftentimes a disabled veteran who can’t work can make a claim for assistance through government resources but it can take months or even years to process. “We’re kind of that bridge that helps get through that point,” he said.
“This is not a handout. It’s a hand up,” he tells veterans who are the recipients of Operation We Care generosity. “Pay it forward. In a couple years, you come back and tell us you’re good and that makes it all worthwhile. You just get somebody going.”
“We’ve had people that we bought bus tickets for,” Rowell continues. “One gentleman, he had cancer and he was dying. ‘All I want to do is get back home to my family,’ (he said). We went and bought him bus ticket, gave him $100 to eat off of to get there and everything else. And he got there and his family kind of took over from there. Got him back to the VA. Got him the medications and treatments he needed and everything. He’s still going. That was four years ago. He sent us a check for $300 to reimburse us for the bus ticket. He felt that good. That makes it all worth while.”
Operation We Care and in fact, the entire Veterans Freedom Center, is entirely funded by donations. The VFC receives no government money for operations.
“100 percent of the money that comes into here is donations and stays here. There isn’t one person here that gets paid,” states Rowell. “They’re all volunteers and that’s what makes it work. We’ve actually had the VA psychologist come up from Iowa City to see what we do and how it works because we’ve got a few of the people who used to be shut-ins that come down here and are very much open now. But they wouldn’t leave their house before. They feel safe here. As hard as it is to believe but you get a grown person that doesn’t feel safe but they do feel safe here.”
Rowell explains that after a time, he gets to know some of the vets who come in and he can tell when they’re having a bad day. He invites them in to his office to find out what the trouble is. Being a veteran himself, he understands what they’re going through. “We’ve actually got three or four people that come down here that would tell you that they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this place,” he shares. “They were at the bottom. They come down here and they feel a part of something.”
“The word ‘no’ doesn’t function here,” Rowell continues. “Somebody will say, ‘Well, I can’t do that.” That don’t go here. There’s a saying here and you’ll see it on a few things around: ‘Yes, you can.’ When you get people doing it, they feel worth something again. It’s very hard—somebody that’s been in the military for any length of time to come out in civilian life. You just don’t fit. And the stuff that follows you that you can’t get rid of…”
Rowell, a veteran of Vietnam, admits that both he and Wagner suffer from PTSD, that they’ve gone through treatment and are on medication for it. “It don’t go away but it makes it easier to control,” he says. “You’re not such a big yayhoo.” Wagner is also currently recovering from heart surgery.
It seems that for the cofounders of the VFC, spending time in the camaraderie of their peers is therapeutic for all involved. “Counseling is a big part of this place” Rowell says. “We counsel one another. And it’s therapy for us just to be doing this. When you have somebody who says, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this,’ you can’t know how much… Why did we come home from Vietnam and there were a lot of guys who didn’t? Maybe somebody had a better idea for us. Maybe this is it. I don’t know. People here truly care and it doesn’t take long for that to get out.”
He acknowledges that the shared experience of military life, regardless of which branch of the military or what era, give veterans a mutual understanding that allows them to help one another.
“Most of the time you have somebody that’s having a real bad time or a real bad day, just let them vent a little bit,” he explains. “We all have to vent to somebody. You’re working with a real proud bunch of guys. (They say), ‘I ain’t got a problem!’ Okay, you’re talking to someone who didn’t have that problem too.”
Having someone who shares their experience and understands what they are going through can sometimes be enough to help a veteran get through a rough patch and appreciate their potential. “If you can make a person feel good about their life, when they go out that door, their home life is better. Everybody in their family is better. That’s the biggest thing,” stresses Rowell. “We went 40 years without getting help and survived by working third shift and stuff like this. Well when we retired, that’s all gone and all of a sudden, it all jumps right back up and bites you right in the ass.”
Younger veterans have their own set of challenges they’re dealing with. “We’ve got some young guys coming back that have put six, eight, ten years in the military and they’re having a horrible time coming back,” notes Rowell. “You get some guys that have gone over to Afghanistan or Iraq that’s been there three, some of them four tours, that’s a hard thing.”
Regardless of age or when a veteran served, the VFC is a place where all vets should feel welcome. “It’s veterans helping veterans, is what it amounts to,” says Rowell. “We’re very gifted—and I can’t stress this enough—to live in a community of people that are as gracious as the one we live in right here because these people back us 100 percent. If you’d asked me that ten years ago, I would have laughed at you because I didn’t think much of people. But they sure changed my attitude. Do I still do well out there? No, I don’t. In here … I can get talking about this place or go and give a speech—it’s very easy to do because it’s something we love.”
Rowell notes that one misconception about the Veterans Freedom Center is that it is a facility for disabled vets. “People think you have to be disabled or something to come down here. No, you don’t. Just be a veteran,” he states. “Just come down, interact. That’s the biggest thing. Be part of it. You can come down here and do as much or as little as you want. But the camaraderie and stuff that’s here is just unbelievable. You’re not going to come down here and say something that’s going to throw us a curve. We’ve heard it all. We’ve done it all. The biggest misconception is not knowing. Come on down.”
The VFC also welcomes non-veteran volunteers to help out with operations, teach a class, or maybe just bring in some food for the community room. Of course, donations are always welcome as well—either items like tools for the wood shop or used wheelchairs or even more importantly, cash, which can go toward basic operations or the Operation We Care program.
From humble beginnings, the Veterans Freedom Center has grown to the point that it welcomed 6,700 veterans through the doors in 2014. “Did we ever dream it would get this big?” Rowell asks. “No. We were always hoping but it just shows you the need that’s out there.”