Veterans in our midst: Alexandria veterans — strength over struggles

Veterans in our midst: Alexandria veterans — strength over struggles

By John Sims

Much is written about the challenges our veterans and families face following their military service. High rates of suicide, problems at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or struggles of veterans trying to reintegrate into civilian life after the high-octane, blistering pace of more than 12 years of war dominate the media and our collective psyche.

What often fails to reach the general public are the exceptional skills, talents and value our military bring to communities upon returning home. We in Alexandria have an ideal opportunity to capitalize on our unique history and to reshape the national dialogue from one of veteran struggles to a story of veteran strength.

Our unique situation is founded upon a long history of integrating veterans’ skills as they return from service. George Washington, whom we should proudly proclaim as “Alexandrian and our nation’s first veteran,” returned with his men from two wars — the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War — to become leaders and productive members of the community. They contributed as government and business leaders, farmers, teachers and productive members of Alexandria.

Just as with our current veterans, previous veterans bore the physical and emotional scars of war. The responsibility to care for those who have served remains a sacred responsibility to the community, government and citizens. But healing their wounds from war has never stopped veterans from being productive members of the communities in which they live. In Alexandria, there are many examples.

First, Alexandria has a large population of veterans, with more than 10,000 having served. A little known fact is that Alexandria boasts more than 344 veteran-owned businesses with that number continuing to grow. Part of this growth is due to the work and vision of Bob Wood, Val Hawkins, Stephanie Landrum and Emily McMahan, who created Capitol Post, which serves entrepreneurial veterans and those transitioning to civilian life.

Capitol Post has spawned Bunker Labs D.C., an incubator for veteran startups and businesses. Bunker Labs recently welcomed eight new veteran startups to its first class. With 75 percent of economic growth in our community coming from small businesses, these veteran-owned businesses are an important part of what makes Alexandria a thriving
business community.

Second, Alexandria is a welcoming community to those who serve. There are numerous events throughout the year that invite veterans to the community, including the Year of the Veteran in 2014, Vets Gotta Eat discounts to thank veterans while increasing patronage at local restaurants, or the recent housing of 300 disabled veteran athletes and families during the 2015 Warrior Games in Quantico. In all, we welcome veterans in Alexandria.

Finally, without fanfare and little notice, the Military Times honored Alexandria as the best mid-sized city for veterans. Low unemployment rates, job opportunities and quality of life, combined with the intangible of “community welcome” combined to make us first. Now, we have to continue to live up to that distinction.

In all, without our knowing it, Alexandria is leading the nation in recognizing both sides of our veterans: their struggles and their strengths. We should be proud to be a model for all on how to address both, while putting strengths over struggles.

The writer is the deputy director of career transition services at the Military Officers Association of America’s Transition Center.