ANN ARBOR – The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 423 in south Ann Arbor recently began operating as a veteran resource center in order to connect with vets in Washtenaw County.
Located at 3230 S. Wagner Road, the post is set on dozens of acres of land and provides the privacy and seclusion that vets need, said VFW 423 Chaplain and local Veterans Community Action Team Quality of Life Chair Robert Bull.
Beginning in November, the post began hosting the veterans resource center on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Before then, the large facility had been used only for occasional meetings by the VFW and the local VFW Auxiliary, American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America chapters.
The resource center welcomes all veterans regardless of age and where and when they served. At each session, veterans can enjoy free coffee and food and share stories with others who have served. For those experiencing food insecurity, the site also operates a food pantry that’s funded by a local veteran donor.
“They come down and most of the time, they have donuts and coffee and just sit and talk,” said Bull. “And we hear all their stories. There’s a retired general who comes down here and he shares his stories of being a combat pilot in Vietnam.
“Then we’ve got the younger ones that are coming in now -- the Iraq and Afghanistan vets -- and they’ve been more resistant to this thing, partly because they think it’s an old man’s club. But, we’re starting to see them come in a little bit at a time and we’re starting to see women come down.”
Bull said he never asks veterans for an ID card and said as long as they served in the U.S. military they are welcome to use the resource center, which is run entirely by volunteers.
This past Saturday, the center held an open house to help connect veterans with crucial area resources. The next open house will be on July 24.
“We’re offering the veterans support from someone that they can’t get on the phone or they can’t get going to the VA hospital and they can’t get just hoping and praying,” said Bull. “They get a chance to pour out their needs and their desires that they won’t normally do with somebody else. Unless you’re a veteran, there’s no understanding, and it’s important to get them around veterans and as many as possible.”
Bull said he got involved in the project because of the rising suicide rate among vets and the dangerous isolation that the coronavirus pandemic has placed vets under.
“You can’t isolate a veteran,” said Bull. “If you do, and he’s got no place to go, all he can think about is what he doesn’t have. Hope is the most important thing. And when they lose hope, they lose everything.
“Being a minister, I try to make sure that they have all the hope they can get. We feed them, we have programs where we can get clothing for them, if they’re getting into a new apartment, we have places where we can get furniture for them. There’s money out there to help a vet, but until we know where they’re at, until we know they’re broken, we can’t help them.”
Michael Perron is one of the younger vets to come to the resource center. As part of his 10 years of service, the 36-year-old was deployed in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 when his unit was attacked.
He said the resource center provides a safe space to share stories and receive guidance and support. A professional photographer, he received small business assistance through the center.
“With the aging VFW, we are kind of at the point where there needs to be a passing of the baton and the resource center was a good way to bring in younger members because we do need resources,” said Perron. “We don’t know much of anything. We’re kind of like babes in the woods learning to walk again.”
Perron said he struggled for years after he returned home from the Middle East.
“I’m very fortunate that I don’t have a criminal background,” he said. “There’s a lot of PTSD guys that have criminal records.”
The common ground he finds with the older vets -- despite decades between their wars -- has been helpful, said Perron.
“They’ve experienced this,” he said. “They went through this in the ’80s. The resource center brings us around and it’s a safe space to shoot the s***. Our societies are very different, but our wars are similar. We understand the same paranoia.”
Bull said he sees about 15 veterans each session, but that the number has been increasing on Saturdays in part due to the warmer weather.
He hopes to install basketball hoops, a nature path and a playscape soon so that vets will bring their families to the post. He also hopes to be able to one day raise enough money for a volunteer-run shuttle, so that vets without a car can access the facility.
The post’s limitation of being remote is also its best quality, said Bull.
“Yes, we are remote, but the remoteness also helps us with the seclusion because it’s a safe place,” he said.