By John Porter (File photo)
“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen” cited Henry Lee III in his eulogy for George Washington. Washington was certainly first in many categories — commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, president of the newly formed United States and one which we probably don’t think of as much — one of our country’s first veterans. As Washington’s hometown, Alexandria proudly remembers not only General Washington but all who have served our country this coming week as we observe Alexandria Honors Veterans Week 2014.
I recently spoke with two local veterans about the importance of recognizing those who have served. They are:
Colonel John D. Sims, now retired, served a distinguished career in the U. S. Army. He presently serves as Deputy Director of Career Transition Services for the Military Officers Association of America and leads the group organizing Alexandria Honors Veterans Week 2014.
Brendan O’Toole, another Alexandrian, reached the rank of sergeant in the U. S. Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan before committing himself to run 3,600 miles across the United States in support of veterans and their families. The Run for Veterans began in November 2012 and was completed in 2013.
In a bit of a departure from my usual column, I offer some of their thoughts and comments as we approach the coming week.
Question: You both recently left the military. What does being a veteran mean to you?
John Sims: This past year, I retired from the Army after 28 years. I’m proud of my service and any contributions I made to our nation’s defense. I’m also very proud of my wife and four kids for their contributions. Now, as a civilian and veteran, I want to use the skills and abilities I gained during my time in the Army to help Alexandria and military personnel as they transition to civilian life.
Brendan O’Toole: Veterans Day is extremely important to our service members/veterans in Alexandria, as it is home to American’s first vet — George Washington. I know everyone in the community is dedicated to seeing Alexandria continue to lead the country by example when it comes to supporting our service members.
Question: You both are very involved in veteran’s issues in Alexandria—what do you hope to accomplish?
O’Toole: I am involved in veterans’ issues because of the cycles of history. No matter what war or conflict, veterans have many shared and yet unique experiences. Today, it’s safe to say our nation is doing a tremendous job supporting our vets, but there is still a long way to go. While it will never be perfect, we can always improve our support for veterans.
Sims: Veterans are part of the fabric of Alexandria and those threads are important to our community. My goal is to reconnect veterans to Alexandria to make our community even better. Veterans have a lot to offer Alexandria through their skills, leadership and abilities, and the community is best served when vets are involved.
Question: What role can veterans play in Alexandria?
O’Toole: It is important for veterans to follow in the footsteps of Alexandria’s and our country’s first veteran, George Washington, by being contributing members of the community.
Sims: Veterans have been a critical part of Alexandria since the late 1700s. There are over 260 veteran-owned businesses in Alexandria and we should seek ways to leverage the talents veterans bring. It’s a two-way street — Alexandria has to innovate to remain the ideal community for veterans and veterans have to speak up and look for ways to contribute to the city. This isn’t charity, this is community improvement.
Question: What do you see as the future for veterans in our community?
Sims: Last year, several prominent Alexandrians started the Alexandria Veterans Advisory Group (AVAG). This is an open network of veterans and community leaders who want to honor our veterans, while increasing vet involvement to improve Alexandria. We want to show all who visit that Alexandria is “Ideal for Veterans.”
O’Toole: I truly believe that the hard work and gathering of our local veterans and community members, especially through groups like AVAG, provides an opportunity for Alexandria to create a blueprint for the rest of our country.
To all Alexandrians, be sure to support our veterans and present service members, not just next week but also in the future.
The writer is the president and CEO of ACT for Alexandria.