The Safe America Foundation is kicking off the program, which is aimed at mobilizing Georgia nonprofits to help the Georgia National Guard assist 900 Georgia guardsmen and women returning from Afghanistan as the war winds down.
Len Pagano, Safe America’s president and CEO, said there’s a desperate need for the group in Cobb County.
“It’s hard to come back from a war zone and try to function normally,” he said. “We’re concerned the anticipated cut in federal funds to the National Guard will lead to some services helping veterans return to civilian life will disappear.”
The first event of Safe America’s new task force, called “Welcome Home, Heroes!” is today at the Cobb Galleria from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Several recently-returned veterans, their families and spouses are expected to be on hand for the inaugural seminar and expo.
Speakers at the event will address the counseling and assistance needs of returning military and National Guard personnel and preview plans Safe America and other groups will collaborate on to assist returning veterans. C.B. Fair III, president of United Community Bank, has been named chairman of the Safe America Task Force.
Pagano said Safe America was asked by the American Red Cross to help coordinate services from several metro Atlanta nonprofits. According to a press release from Safe America, the federal government expects a 71 percent cut in funding to help veterans and their families find employment, find housing and deal with the mental stresses of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is an unusual situation in that the military is asking for civilians to lead the very programs that are being cut back,” Pagano said. “In losing eight of the ten family assistance staffers who deal with PTSD and other issues like employment, housing and mental health, the National Guard told us, ‘Without civilian help, some people may make poor choices, such as suicide.’ And we could even have an event like what happened recently at Ford Hood. So this is no small matter.”
He expects the Cobb Galleria event to be the first of many.
Pagano said physical wounds from wars can heal, but mental scars can last years or even decades, adding that the problem can be even worse for the National Guard than for other branches of the military.
“Unlike the mainstream soldier that goes back to a base with built-in resources, here in the National Guard you’re going back home,” he said. “You disappear into the woodwork.”
According to Pagano, one in four families include a soldier. He went on to say 3,600 former soldiers in metro Atlanta are homeless and 34,000 soldiers will come home this year.
Ebony Walker, a 1st lieutenant, is Safe America’s veterans outreach coordinator. She described some of the group’s services.
“One primary resource we’ll lose (with the budget cuts) is financial counseling,” she said. “Not having a job or having one can be the difference between taking care of a family or getting divorced. There is such a domino effect.”
She added some soldiers can be scarred when they return from war by seeing how their family has moved on without them. While, according to Walker, some say returning soldiers need to just “suck it up” and move on, she said it’s just not that simple.
“How would I have felt if I came home and someone told me ‘You’ll be all right,’” she said. “That’s what somebody told someone that committed suicide. That’s what the person who got a divorce was told.”
Sponsors of the effort include United Community Bank, Allstate, Sam’s Club and Sprint.
Safe America is headquartered in Marietta. The Safe America Foundation is a nonprofit licensed by the state of Georgia. Chartered in 1994, the group partners with corporate, government, public and private sector organizations and other nonprofits to improve the safety awareness and preparedness of Americans. The group’s website is SafeAmerica.org.