Since Congress made it so in 1999, May is National Military Appreciation Month, meant to honor the nation’s past and present service members and to draw awareness and appreciation to the 90 million men and women who have served – and continue to serve – in an American military uniform, as well as those who have given their lives in defense of American freedoms and ideals.
Of course, many groups and individuals show their appreciation year-round and encourage all Americans to support military service members and their families. One of the most venerable of these groups is the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the nation’s largest organization of combat veterans, which was formed a full century before there was a National Military Appreciation Month. Of the 13 million hours of community service the VFW and its auxiliaries perform each year, many are performed in support of active-duty military personnel.
Supporting the Troops: The Military Assistance Program
According to Mike Penney, the VFW’s director of National Military Services, the organization’s troop support program is composed of three different elements.
The Military Assistance Program, or MAP, extends financial grants to individual VFW posts that want to host functions for military units, such as farewell parties, welcome home rallies, spouses’ nights out, and events for Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) – the command-sponsored organizations of family members, volunteers, soldiers, and civilian employees associated with a particular unit.
The MAP Program, which interacts with about 300,000 service and family members annually, is typically the gateway to further involvement between the VFW and individual service members, as it often creates an awareness of all the support services offered by the VFW.
One of the MAP programs is Adopt-a-Unit, which pairs a particular post with a military unit – not only sending support in the form of care packages to deployed service members in a particular unit, but also offering moral support to the dependents left behind when the unit deploys. Since the war on terrorism began in 2001, more than 1,000 units have been adopted by VFW posts.
MAP has also formed partnerships with various service providers, including VetJobs, aimed at providing the transitioning service member with relocation and employment assistance.
Since 1996, the VFW has offered Operation Uplink™, a program that provides free phone cards to active-duty and hospitalized veterans so they can stay in touch with families and loved ones. “We provide, on a monthly basis, at least one free call a day from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, where service members can call their loved ones back here in the United States, or in Germany or Italy,” says Penney. “We pay for that through our sponsors, and it’s provided on a 24-hour time frame.”
So far, Operation Uplink has provided more than 60 million minutes of phone time to service members; last year alone, it provided 1.6 million connections. As Linda Ferguson, the VFW’s manager of special projects and programs, explains, Operation Uplink has evolved rapidly to accommodate changes in telecommunications technology. “We provided phone cards up until 2006,” she says. “That’s when we first heard about IP [internet protocol], and hooked up with the company that was providing calls through Internet cafes in Iraq.”
Despite a general shift to calling the Internet, Operation Uplink remains one of VFW’s premier programs because it allows anyone to make an immediate difference in the lives of hospitalized or deployed troops by providing them a means of communicating with loved ones who may be far away. Anyone may purchase a phone card for a hospitalized veteran or deployed service member.
Another VFW program is Unmet Needs, which has helped more than 2,000 families with grants totaling more than $3.2 million since its establishment in 2004. “If they fall on hard times because of their service to our country, we provide grants up to $2,500 to fix their car, pay their rent, pay the electric bill, repair the hot water heater, or whatever the situation is if they cannot meet those obligations and it’s because of their service to our country,” says Penney.
The program’s direct assistance to families in need is due largely to the generosity of corporate and other private sponsors. 100 percent of every private donation directly benefits the Unmet Needs Program.
“The Veterans of Foreign Wars is made up of combat veterans,” says Penney. “We’ve all been there, and we know what it’s like over there. We’re just trying to make it a little better for those that are defending our country today than it was when we did it.”
Learn more about the VFW’s troop support programs – including how to apply for an Unmet Needs grant.