GRAFTON, N.Y. -- Speaking before a state congressional hearing more than a year ago, Major Joel Abelove and former Rensselaer County Commissioner Katherine Maciol told members of the state legislature about the mental impact service in the nation’s military can have on its members, both during and after their service.
Moved to action by those hearings, state legislators crafted Heroes at Home, a pilot program aimed at fostering connections between current and retired military personnel and their families in the effort to treat mental illness.
Ever since the Rensselaer County program -- one of four pilots programs -- became active in September of last year, Abelove has been trying to bring awareness of its existence to military families around the county. It was that effort that brought him to Goold’s Orchards Apple Festival this past weekend, and to Grafton Lakes State Park for a veterans’ picnic on Monday afternoon.
"We thought it would be a tremendous idea to have a picnic today to honor veterans and their family members -- who are so important in the lives of the veterans themselves, as their primary support network -- and get them all together and help foster, organically, these peer relationships between military members and their families," said Abelove, who is a veteran, active National Guardsman.
The hope is that, by funding a group that will work in each county’s communities, the program for veterans of recent conflicts will fill a much-needed niche.
At 382 dues paying members, the Melvin Roads American Legion Post 1231 in East Greenbush is one of the largest such posts in the county, but only a dozen of those members served in conflicts that occurred in the 21st century. It is a phenomenon that is not unique to American Legions posts, said Ed Pratt, adjutant for the Melvin Roads Post. The average age of members of many local fraternal organizations such as the Elks and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have been slowly increasing, as younger generations are signing up in much smaller numbers than in decades past. Without such organizations, and the peer support group they can provide, many veterans are lacking a support network that could aid them -- a void that Heroes at Home seeks to fill.
"Many of (recent veterans) feel that they are alone," said Pratt. "They may feel as if ‘Nobody has been through what I’ve been through,’ and that is often true," he added, but noted that there are organizations who can provide companionship if the veteran seeks it.
For members with severe mental health conditions, the Melvin Roads Post can refer members to the services provided by the Stratton Veterans’ Affairs Hospital in Albany, but even their inpatient and outpatient services can be limited when a veteran is not willing to take advantage of them. Marine veteran Nicasio Rios, who attended the picnic, spoke of one veteran he knew who has severe post traumatic stress disorder, but who will not take advantage of the local VA services -- and for whom a program such as Heroes at Home could be beneficial.
"As you’re getting back (from active duty), you’re helping people who just got back," said Rios, a 42-year-old Guilderland resident, who was initially skeptical of the program. "It’s definitely something that veterans need when they are returning from the warzones, whatever their job is, because PTSD is not necessarily limited to those who are pulling the triggers." Continued...
For two active duty retention officers who were at Grafton Lakes tossing a football, the events sponsored by Heroes at Home are beneficial in that they bring together older generations with newer generations, giving both the opportunity to share their experiences from during their service and how they dealt with those experiences when they returned to civilian life.
"I think it’s just very good for the older group to mingle with the newer generation," said Nathen Harmon, an army staff sergeant and retention officer.
Information for the Rensselaer County chapter of Heroes at Home in Rensselaer County can be found on their website at www.heroesathomerensco.com or by calling 518-279-7861.