BRATTLEBORO—What started for Hal Lier as a desire to volunteer in his community has evolved into a new support program that aims to help older veterans remain connected to their communities and decrease social isolation.
Vet to Vet, a program from Senior Solutions, matches volunteer military veterans with fellow veterans in southern Windham County. Similar to the agency’s Friendly Visitor program, Vet to Vet connects volunteers to older veterans who live alone or have limited access to their community because of transportation or other mobility issues.
“The beauty of it is that it’s just about caring and empathizing,” Lier said of being a volunteer.
Volunteers don’t have to have any special knowledge or training beyond what they receive from Senior Solutions, he continued.
“Behind us as the volunteers, there is the whole network of Senior Solutions,” he said.
Lier, Vet to Vet’s first volunteer, believes that many of the estimated 3,000 veterans who live in Windham County could benefit from Vet to Vet, whether as a volunteer or as a participant.
Lier’s participation is pushing this program forward, said Post 5 Commander John Hagen, who said that he and Vicki Mastroianni, the senior companion coordinator at Senior Solutions, both wanted the program to take off but lacked the necessary point person.
Lier said, “What I like about this program is that the volunteer and the veteran being served develop the plan that meets both their needs.”
This care plan, explained Lier, ensures that the expectations for both volunteer and participant are clear.
“The amount of time I spend is what fits into my schedule, and I know that I am giving real assistance to a fellow veteran,” Lier added. “The payback is enormous.”
A model program
Brattleboro Post 5 and Senior Solutions — formerly known as the Council on Aging for Southeastern Vermont — are partnering first to train volunteers and then connect them to veterans.
Lier said Mastroianni first proposed the program, based on Vet to Vet Maine (vet2vetmaine.org/about-vet-2-vet-maine), which launched last year.
According to its website, the Maine program started in response to the number of veterans committing suicide in the state. In 2014, an estimated 55 veterans in Maine took their lives — approximately one per week.
Vet to Vet is actively seeking volunteers. Senior Solutions will provide the two-hour volunteer training, which includes a basic background check, a small handbook, and basic best practices to follow.
The agency will also help identify veterans who would benefit from the program. Lier said that Vet to Vet will start taking new participants once it has three to four trained volunteers.
“We want our volunteer veterans to feel comfortable and excited in their roles,” said Mastroianni, who anticipates that this joint effort with Post 5 could serve as a model for Senior Solutions collaborations with other American Legion and VFW posts around the state.
“This could be an amazing collaborative opportunity for these veteran service organizations to maintain contacts with their older members while also providing tremendous support to our Vermont communities,” Mastroianni said.
Post 5 is also helping to identify volunteers and veterans who might want to participate.
“Our post wants this program to be available for all veterans, and we see our support for the Vet to Vet program as an important way for us to serve our community,” said Hagen.
In previous interviews with The Commons, Hagen has spoken about expanding the ways Post 5 fulfills its mission of veterans helping veterans.
Hagen said he asks himself, “How, as a Legion post, do we serve veterans where we’re not just about the bar?”
He said veterans’ service experiences vary. Some have served in the infantry overseas, while others, such as Hagen, sat in missile silos in North Dakota in the 1980s.
Lier said he served in West Berlin during the Cold War in the 1970s.
“I never thought that wall would come down,” Lier said, referring to the Berlin Wall, which divided the city for nearly three decades until the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.
Vet to Vet is one pillar for creating connection among veterans, he said. Post 5 also hosts a morning coffee hour. It recently launched a similar program for female veterans.
“We like to say: veterans serving and serving veterans” at Post 5, Hagen said.
Vet to Vet is not just about charity, added Hagen, who observed that veterans easily feel that they should give before they receive.
Instead, Hagen said that he sees participating in a program like Vet to Vet as a continuation of what soldiers do.
“We keep track of each other,” he said.
According to Hagen, Post 5 has fewer than 400 members. The numbers are dropping, he said, mostly because of members dying. He adds, however, that veterans’ organizations are seeing a shift in how different generations participate in their organizations.
In the case of Post 5, the majority of members served during the Vietnam War era. Many are retired. The younger generation, however, is busy with work and family. Hagen said the Legion must serve them all the best it can.
Hagen said that Legion membership is not a requirement for veterans who want to either volunteer or to participate. He anticipates reaching out to other local veterans’ organizations.
“If every organization provided just one volunteer, it’d be pretty good,” he said.
Vet to Vet will likely evolve as more veterans participate.
In the middle of speaking with The Commons, Hagen and Lier started talking about veterans’ needs. Lier mentioned that he’d like a nutritional component to the program, noting that the veteran he works with experiences food insecurity.
“You can bring him to lunch at the Legion,” said Hagen.