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VOL. 127 | NO. 242 | Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Serving Warriors

Nonprofit organization assists Tennessee’s military veterans

By ERINN FIGG

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In November 2006, then-U.S. Army Spc. Susan Downes was serving as a military police officer in Afghanistan’s Logar Province when her Humvee drove over an improvised explosive device.

Attorney Jeff Ward of Munford will be raffling off two sculptures to help Feed Our Warriors, an organization he is supporting with Army veteran Sue Downes. Feed Our Warriors is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting veterans.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“The truck jerked and that’s really all I remember,” said the Tazewell, Tenn., veteran. “The next thing I knew, doctors in Germany were waking me up from a medically induced coma to tell me I had lost both my legs.”

Downes is the first woman double-amputee from Afghanistan, a circumstance that she says has helped shape her but does not define her. She has received numerous accolades, including two Purple Hearts, and is a spokeswoman for numerous national veterans associations.

Now, she’s teaming up with Munford lawyer Jeff Ward to take on veterans’ issues that are closer to home. Their new nonprofit organization Feed Our Warriors is dedicated to providing Tennessee veterans with food, clothing and assistance with jobs, housing and medical resources. Ward is managing the organization’s activities in the Mid-South, while Downes oversees operations in East Tennessee.

“As I’ve been working with national organizations, I wanted to do more for Tennessee,” Downes said. “My county is so small. Many veterans here are unaware of all the resources that are out there for them. A lot of them don’t know what their benefits are.”

According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 60.5 percent of the estimated 1.6 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars say they have a good understanding of VA benefits and services, compared to 44.6 percent of World War II veterans and 44.2 percent of Vietnam veterans.

Meanwhile, according to November statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for veterans of current wars is 10 percent. Other statistics provided by the grassroots organization Veterans for Common Sense demonstrate problems with beleaguered disability claims processing systems and mental health. As of November, nearly 900,000 veterans were waiting an average of eight months for an initial decision from the VA on a disability benefit claim. And as of June, the VA treated 834,000 veterans after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Among those patients, 445,000 were diagnosed with at least one mental health condition.

“It’s an experience that can be hard for many people to relate to. With most jobs, your safety is not even in doubt. With our veterans, that’s not the case,” said Ward, whose father was an Army Ranger in the Korean War. “Seeing blood and dying changes you. You can’t talk about it. You suffer in ways people don’t understand.”

Ward says Munford is small enough for him to regularly witness area veterans struggling with finding employment, housing and even food. He has helped write more than two-dozen resumes for local unemployed veterans.

“These are people with amazing military experience, but they come home and they have no idea how to translate that experience into a civilian job here,” he said.

Ward says his legal experience as a partner at Ward Williams PLLC, combined with Downes’ experience as a veteran readjusting to civilian life, makes for an effective combination. The two had planned to announce the organization in January; however, as soon as they began spreading word among their respective networks, people immediately wanted to help.

“People started making donations, offering raffle items, pledging thousands of dollars in support – the response was heartwarming,” Ward said. “Most people we’ve encountered have been enthusiastic about helping veterans when asked. They’re grateful for the service to our country and recognize these folks as the heroes they are.”

Currently, Ward and Downes are forming an advisory board – “we have everyone from a doctor to a gun store manager to a Green Beret member,” Ward said – and are collecting donations to buy holiday wish-list items for children of area veterans. They are also selling raffle tickets for two large statues – one of an eagle, the other a seven-foot-tall soldier – by Indiana artist Paul Moon. Next year, they plan to have two significant fundraising events in the spring and fall.

Ward says he’s touched by the many people who have approached him and offered to organize motorcycle rides, golf tournaments and marathons to help raise even more funds. He hopes Feed Our Warriors will continue to spread awareness and appreciation of Tennessee’s veterans, many of whom feel like they’ve been forgotten, he says.

“These veterans are our friends, our family members, our neighbors,” Ward said. “They’ve given us so much – surely we can each give back a little.”

To learn more about Feed Our Warriors, visit the organization’s Facebook page at facebook.com/FeedOurWarriors. While an official website is still in the works, a temporary one is at feedourwarriors.weebly.com and includes a donation button as well as current fundraising efforts.

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