By Jena Doyle
I was raised in a small town just south of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up with two loving parents, a twin sister, and an older brother. When I was younger, I thought I’d grow up to be famous. I had not based that on any talent or skill that I performed extremely well, I just thought that it would be fun.
Though I’m not famous yet, I did study International Relations and Spanish at American University, and just last year I was teaching English to University students in Quito, Ecuador. If you had asked me if I would then transition to a position working for a veteran focused non-profit, I would have shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Eh, who knows?”
Well, I guess I knew a little bit, because here I am, the Director of Programs and Congressional Engagement for HillVets.
Coming from a Catholic family, I grew up going to church every Sunday. One of the first memories that comes to my mind when I think about that church, is the older couple who, during every service, sat behind my family and me. My Nana always made conversation with them, they lived up the street from her. What I distinctly remember about the man, is he always had on his Korean War Veteran VFW hat. Of course, he took it off while in church, but it always sat proudly next to him. He even on occasion, wore his green VFW jacket to match, with pins and decals covering the sleeves. At first, I thought it meant he belonged to a club of some sorts. I had seen other older men throughout my town with the same hat or jacket and simply thought that if they wore the same clothes; they must be a similar type of person. So, one day, I asked my Dad what this club really meant. He explained to me that those men were veterans, meaning that they fought in wars to protect our country because they were called to serve.
Veterans. Huh, I thought.
Later in conversation, my dad mentioned that my own Grandfather, who had died before I was born, was a veteran.
There it was, that word again!
I came to learn that he too had served in Korea, as a cooks mate with the Army. His two older brothers also served in World War II. In 1945, when the United States liberated Germany, my Great Uncle George’s Army Battalion was one of the first to the camps, where they were responsible for burying the bodies of the dead. He came home a lost, distraught, and silent man. Those of that generation of veterans returned to a community of individuals who had experienced the same things, a group of people that they could rely on for support.
My Grandfather came home from Korea and struggled to adjust. He eventually found community in his generation of veterans, just as his brothers did and the man in my church.
After my Dad shared these stories with me, the word veteran made a bit more sense to me. Though I didn’t actually know the intricacies of what it meant to truly be a veteran, what it meant to sacrifice for your country, I understood that they were connected through community.
When I first came to HillVets, I was worried that I would feel like an outsider because I myself was not a veteran and would not be able to relate to the experiences of those around me. But what I found in HillVets and the greater veteran space, was a community that had room for individuals of all different backgrounds, and all different stories and experiences, that were able to come together simply on the basis of wanting to support one another.
I quickly came to realize that the things that I had worried about knowing, didn’t matter as much, and that though being a veteran is a huge part of an individual’s identity, it’s not the only way you can connect with them. I learned to listen and understand and empathize with the stories and experiences that were shared with me, and a desire to fight for the achievement of their own goals grew within me.
The community that HillVets has built is the heartbeat of our organization. It is a “veteran club” that is inclusive to veterans and service-members who want to make an impact through policy. But it’s also a community of supporters and allies, who want to fight for those veterans and their voice in policy.
I think about the man from my church more frequently, my grandfather, too. They found support through their own club of veterans, their own community who shared similar experiences. In the years since their war experiences, the idea of a veteran community has grown tremendously. There are so many to be a part of! Though I wonder how different their veteran experience would have been like if they had had a community like the HillVets one, a community to raise them up, to support their aspirations, and to advocate for their voice.