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Expand the Memorial Day message, veterans group says

Perry McClellan of Langley thinks Memorial Day should be about more than patriotism and saluting the flag. It also needs to address the toll taken on the human spirit.

“Patriotism is OK, but it’s meaningless if you don’t have that connection with the reasons we have wars,” McClellan said.

“We want to involve everyone in trying to solve the effects that linger after every conflict,” he continued. “War affects all of us. It’s important to take some time on Memorial Day to acknowledge that.”

McClellan is co-director, along with his wife Judith Gorman and others, of the Veterans Resource Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping returning war veterans and their families, friends and communities.

After two years of organizing and planning, the group is launching a series of public programs, starting with a special Memorial Day tribute on Monday, May 25, at Langley Middle School auditorium.

The program, “Honoring the Heart of the Matter,” will be from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., and will feature a dozen readings describing the imprint of war on everyone it touches. The readings date from World War I through later conflicts.

One was written by a young woman who tells what it was like when her soldier father returned from World War II. Another was written by another young woman whose high school boyfriend went to war and came back a changed person.

“The readings are about the visible and invisible wounds, and what we think can be done about them,” McClellan said.

The plight of returning service members isn’t just a “veteran problem,” it’s a problem for the entire community, he said.

McClellan said that for every veteran returning from a war zone, at least four or five additional family members and friends are directly affected. He estimates that on Whidbey Island alone, that number would include tens of thousands.

His own son, Orrin, now 25, spent half of the past year in government hospital programs after being unable to adjust to civilian life after returning to Langley from duty in Afghanistan. He had joined the Army just barely out of high school.

“He survived the toughest part, being thrown back into civilian life, and he’s doing well,” McClellan said. “These veterans have to learn to build a new life. They can’t go back to the old life, because it doesn’t exist for them anymore.”

He said that more than 1.8 million men and women have served so far in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“A lot of them are coming back here,” McClellan said. “We want to be a resource for them.”

He said Island County already has about 10,000 veterans, with another 10,000 military personnel still on duty at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor. Many have had multiple tours of duty in the Middle East.

“There’s really significant suffering that these people bear because they have served our country,” McClellan said.

He said the Veterans Resource Center offers an informal session twice each month in which veterans can share their experiences and concerns. The free sessions are conducted by counselor Chuck McIntyre, a veteran of the wars in Vietnam and Korea, and educator Steve Durbin, a veteran of Vietnam and Iraq.

The group meets the first and third Fridays of each month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church’s Grigware Hall on Highway 525 in Freeland. The next session is Friday, June 5.

Next week, the Veterans Resource Center will kick off a new program, “From the Home Front,” a free writing and discussion group for family members and friends of veterans.

The group will meet the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, beginning May 27, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran’s Old Nursery Classroom.

The sessions will be conducted by area counselors Kate Stivers and Laurel Vogel. Advance registration is required for the first session. Call Stivers at 331-7299.

McClellan said the Veterans Resource Center has compiled a network of more than 200 health and social services professionals, writers and artists to help returning veterans, their families and members of their communities.

The center operates a telephone helpline and hopes to raise enough money to establish a permanent site for its activities, but in the meantime will continue to use other island venues.

McClellan said activism on the local level can fill in the gaps left by the bureaucracy of the federal Veterans Administration when it comes to returning service personnel.

“Local people can do these things without a huge expense,” he said. “The government’s not going to do it, and has never done it. It can’t afford to put a hospital or clinic in every community.”

McClellan said that through the years, many returning veterans have been tight-lipped about their war experiences. He hopes group programs such as those of the Veterans Resource Center will help soothe the pain and begin the healing for new and old veterans alike.

He’s optimistic about the success of the center because of the number of veterans on the island who are in a position to help.

“You have to start where you are, and do what you can do,” McClellan said.

“I think people will step up and do something positive to take care of their friends and neighbors in a world that’s constantly at war.”

For information on the center, call 321-7226 or e-mail info@vrcwi.com.

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