|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Membership Notes, November/December 2021|
The Anatomy of a
“I feel very fortunate in the life that I’ve been able to lead,” said longtime VVA Chapter 227 treasurer Chuck Harris. “All things being equal, in 1972 I should’ve been killed at the siege of An Loc.”
Harris served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1968-69 with the 101st Airborne Division, and in 1971-72 with the 1st Cavalry Division. He survived the 66-day An Loc battle in 1972 which claimed the lives of many fellow Cobra pilots—some of the last U.S. casualties of the war.
In recent years he’s found a way to give back and support both active-duty personnel and veterans through charitable partnerships between the 340-strong Chapter 227 (Virginia’s largest) and colleagues at his longtime employer, The MITRE Corporation.
In what could be a model for chapters nationwide, Chapter 227 provides crucial 501(c)(19) status and administrative support for the fundraising efforts of MITRE employees, while the latter offers youthful zeal and manpower. MITRE is a federally funded nonprofit specializing in systems engineering and information technology that employs some 8,200 people nationwide.
MITRE employees have a history of supporting current and former service members. And the company encourages its employees to participate in community activities, offering up to 40 paid hours of what they call “civic time” each year.
In 2003 Bob Shepherd, Director of Information Systems Engineering at MITRE’s McLean, Virginia, location, started a program called Suits for Vets. The program covered the cost of interview attire for veterans transitioning into the civilian job market. (See “Suits for Vets” by Xande Anderer in the November/December 2009 issue.)
After Shepherd died in 2005, Chuck Harris was among MITRE colleagues who continued the Suits for Vets program in his memory. Over the next 12 years, the program raised more than $106,000 and outfitted 270 severely wounded veterans, with VVA 227 providing the tax-deductible status that encouraged people to donate, as well as administrative services that enabled 100 percent of all donated funds to go directly to veterans.
As combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, there was less need for Suits for Vets, which ended in 2017. But the MITRE partnership continued through the annual Care Packages for Troops program. Every fall since 2009, that program has sent gifts to active-duty personnel. More than 3,000 packages have been shipped to date. At the suggestion of MITRE Principal Research Analyst Dr. June Rodriguez, a 22-year USAF veteran, the program expanded this year to include Care Packages for Veterans (CPFV), which sends care packages to military retirement homes.
“Most of the time, active duties get a lot of perks, [but] not very much for veterans,” said Rodriguez, who leads CPFV and previously ran the volunteer program at MITRE’s Huntsville, Alabama, site. “I wanted to make sure that veterans were not forgotten, and I also wanted to give back to them.”
The pilot CPFV program this spring raised more than $30,000 worth of items and monetary donations, with 16 MITRE sites participating. The McLean location alone, where Rodriguez works, donated 20 large boxes valued at $16,000 to the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C.
CPFV works like this: Harris and Chapter 227 process the donations, including sending an acknowledgement letter to every donor for tax purposes. They provide the option of online donations, which has been particularly valuable during the pandemic. MITRE volunteers do the gathering, purchasing, and packaging of care items. They also handle publicity for the program and deliver packages. Each participating site has volunteer leaders who choose a military retirement home nearby, and work with them to find out what items residents need.
“The synergy works pretty well,” Harris explained. “MITRE employees tend to be much younger than us old Vietnam vets. So to be able to use an organization that has young energy to help with this kind of stuff just grows it exponentially.”
Whereas Care Packages for Troops tailors parcels to individual service members, typically containing smaller items, CPFV delivers large boxes of donations to retirement homes for distribution among their residents. These have contained everything from blankets, snacks, and stationery, to games and puzzles, books, and walker caddies. The program even sponsors ice cream and pizza socials.
For VVA chapters interested in emulating the 227/MITRE model, Harris recommends first finding someone at a local company who might be interested in starting a partnership.
“If you can find an ‘Energizer Bunny’ kind of employee, that’s best” he said. “Karen Leonard [at MITRE] was. She was devoted to this. She was the one who started it, and wouldn’t let it die.”
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