Before First Lady Michelle Obama announced her intention to raise awareness to the plight of our military families in need, Dunbar, West Virginia citizen and disabled veteran Lisa Groves was well underway operating a hot dog stand called The Veteran's Connection, raising money to help financially strapped or homeless veterans. Groves pays for the supplies out of her own pocket and 100 percent of the money she earns goes directly to the veterans she helps. She has seen firsthand the devastating effects of poverty and the unique position our veterans are facing.
It's hard to fathom that any of our war veterans come home to sleep in an alley or dig through garbage for food. But according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans at least 107,000 veterans sleep on the streets each night and 1.5 million are continually at risk of becoming homeless. Since most homeless veterans are single, they are not eligible for federally funded programs primarily created for families. They wander the streets alone dealing with hunger, PTSD and substance abuse problems.
At night, Groves drives through areas of town where homeless veterans congregate and distributes blankets, food and clean socks. Her phone continually rings with news that a veteran needs help with the most basic of human necessities, such as paying a utility bill or getting a ride to the doctor. One of the most heartbreaking incidents occurred when an Iraq veteran drove to her hot dog stand and asked if she could help him get food and diapers for his 11-month-old baby.
"I walked over to his car to see the baby, who was sitting in the back seat. This precious child was wearing a paper towel and plastic grocery bag as a diaper. The baby's mother, also an Iraq veteran, had recently died following what is suspected as Seroquel intoxication for treatment of PTSD. I picked the baby up and he hugged me so tight that I knew he was starving for a mothers touch. His father was beside himself with grief and his own battle with PTSD and doing the best he could."
Groves acted quickly to help him with his most immediate needs, and arranged proper ongoing care for him and the baby.
In addition to operating The Veterans Connection, Groves serves as the Commander of American Legion Post 11 Institute -- the first African-American female to achieve this goal. Her dedication to helping her fellow veterans is so strong it earned her the prestigious Jefferson Award in 2009. Despite the honor, she has not always received the support of her fellow citizens.
Groves used to operate The Veteran's Connection from a refurbished trailer in the parking lot of a Fas-Check convenience store until vandals and zoning ordinances forced her to seek alternatives. It seems the owners of nearby businesses didn't like the noise her generator made and felt they were losing business due to her presence, a claim Groves denies. Nevertheless, she moved her trailer many times to try and appease her critics but to no avail. In an effort to intimidate Groves, employees from a nearby business have urinated on the side of her trailer, thrown rocks at the windows and used the American flag she had hanging as toilet paper. Groves stumbled upon the man who urinated on her trailer while he was still in the act. She called local police to file charges and the desk officer crudely asked "Did you see his pecker?" Since she had not, she couldn't file the charges. She also reports being denied the right to speak at city council meetings in her ongoing efforts to get the city officials of Dunbar to intervene on behalf of the veterans she helps.
Lisa Groves believes the harassment and cruelty stems from the fact that she is an African-American female and she may be right. However, it's just as likely that the asinine behavior of her tormentors is as much about classism as it is racism. Let's face it -- there are a lot of snobs in this world who don't want the ugliness of poverty tainting their view. These shallow people judge their fellow human beings by what side of town they live on, what kind of car they drive and what their spouse does for a living. For these snobs, political and social standing is paramount in their lives to the point they won't associate with anyone or any cause that may threaten their popularity and status. To them, giving to charity is just another excuse to put on a tux and evening gown to hobnob at a country club dinner where a small portion of the proceeds are donated; that's about as close as they'll get. While that is certainly helpful and needed, it is unfortunate that they are usually the same people sitting in the power positions in terms of who gets help and whose message is heard.
At a recent American Legion conference, Groves arrived with several of the veterans that she works to help. As they made their way into the room, one of the veteran's remarked that the people were laughing at them.
"I told them to hold their heads up high because they had every right to be there," Grove says, "then I heard one of the attendees make the remark, 'that's the post for the reject veterans.' "
Groves has not let her detractors stop her. With her hot dog trailer inoperable, she runs The Veteran's Connection from a tent in the parking lot of a local Kmart. In all kinds of weather, she is out there selling those $1.00 hot dogs, playing patriotic music and doing the best she can.
"I don't want to operate out of a fancy building with a lot of overhead. For this kind of work, I need to be mobile. What we really need is an RV, so I can get to the veterans with all the needed supplies and warm food."
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans offers a search tool where you can find programs in your own community to volunteer your time or donate money. In the meantime, if you are ever near Dunbar, West Virginia, buy your lunch from Lisa Groves at The Veteran's Connection and prove there is no such thing as a "reject veteran" in the United States.
To help the veterans of Dunbar, West Virginia:
American Legion Post 11-WVSU
PO Box 425
Institute, WV 25112
All photos courtesy of Lisa Groves.