VOL. 128 | NO. 243 | Friday, December 13, 2013
By Bill Dries
Cordell Walker wanted to join the military in the 1960s as his older friends were enlisting or being drafted for the Vietnam War.
Cordell Walker has spent the last 26 years as executive director of Alpha Omega Veterans Services Inc., an organization that serves homeless and disabled veterans.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“I really wanted to join the military but could not because I was the only son in my family and I was too young,” said Walker, who for the last 26 years has been executive director of Alpha Omega Veterans Services Inc.
The private, nonprofit organization, which began in 1987 with room for 10 homeless veterans in a duplex, was the first in the country to serve homeless and disabled veterans.
Since those beginnings, Alpha Omega has a 19-bed transitional center, a 15-bed transitional center, 32 one-bedroom apartments for permanent housing, eight townhouses that serve 32 veterans, and the eight-bed Life House, which serves those with special medical needs or needing hospice care.
Some of Walker’s friends who served in Vietnam came back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Others were sick from the toxic effects of Agent Orange. And still others died in the war.
For Walker, the end of the war found him out of graduate school, where he majored in counseling with a minor in psychology. He went from there to working with the first relief program for South Vietnamese nationals coming to America just before and after the fall of Saigon in 1975, which marked the formal end of America’s military involvement in the war.
And he chaired the board of a disabilities program in Pennsylvania that worked with veterans.
Walker said he was looking for a higher calling or ministry as he worked as a counselor in behavior-modification positions. As he was searching for that and was between jobs, the executive director’s position in Memphis was open.
“We were at the cutting edge of this. We are the first in the United States to do this,” he said. “We haven’t had a whole lot of time to jump up and down and toot our horn, because there is just so much to do. There is so much work.”
Alpha Omega has relied on United Way, the Veterans Administration and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development since its inception, and has received state and local government funding as well. Alpha Omega has a $4.5 million budget and has served more than 8,000 veterans in the Memphis area since it opened.
Fifth-graders from New Hope Christian Academy visit Alpha Omega Veterans Services to deliver holiday gifts and share poems of gratitude they wrote.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
In that time, new veterans from more recent wars have become clients, seeking the one month to two years of transitional housing Alpha Omega provides, along with the help of its professional certified peer counselors and licensed social workers, and its wide array of services, including job training and transportation.
Walker has also seen a change in the type of problems some veterans face now.
“I’ve got individuals that are in our program that are in their mid- to late 20s that have been deployed three and four times,” he said. “That’s kind of unique from being 19 and going in for two or three years and coming out at 23 or 24. They’ve got three more years of the conditioning that the military places on you the longer you stay.”
The basic goal for many of the veterans is to reintegrate into society. Many return with no immediate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, only to have it present itself years later. That was the reason the Memphis program was founded in the mid-1980s by the mother of two veterans who experienced those issues.
“It’s kind of like a desensitizing from the combat situation. High intensity, hyper-vigilant and high alert to transitioning back into some normalcy in life,” Walker said. “In that readjustment time, it’s a matter of getting them back to themselves. You go into the military and you have certain moral values and a certain constitution, and that kind of gets skewed during the military time.”
But for the new veterans, Walker believes the illnesses are more sophisticated.
“I think that’s because our society is more sophisticated,” he said. “From the beginning of time when there have been wars and rumors of wars, you’ve had shell shock, the symptoms of being withdrawn and not wanting to be around people, and anger-management problems. But all of that seems to be intensified because we are just a more fast-paced society.”
Walker was honored this month with the Memphis City Council’s annual Humanitarian of the Year award.
He was nominated by council member Jim Strickland, who has worked with Alpha Omega for a decade, providing support, as well as legal advice when needed.
“We’re really a well-kept secret in Memphis. It’s not that we do it intentionally,” Walker said. “I think all of that is soon to change.”