Martha's Vineyard veterans gather for dinner and fellowship

A filled table at the veterans dinner. — Photo by Sam Moore

Nearly five dozen Island military veterans and family members came together for a holiday dinner recently at American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven.

Bill Stafursky, incoming veteran services coordinator of the Veterans Outreach Program at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), billed the event as an opportunity “for veterans of all ages, groups, and eras, service members and their families, to gather together and enjoy a meal,” in what he described as a first-annual event.

His vision was spot-on. From 6-year-olds to a host of 60- and 70-somethings, the hall was crowded with folks sharing animated conversation and a lasagna dinner, including salad and dessert, prepared by the culinary arts department at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, led by instructor Jack O’Malley.

The opportunity to break holiday bread with other Island residents was a draw, and for many the chance to be with others who have also served and have been in harm’s way was a welcome chance to exhale with colleagues with shared experiences.

The 30 or so vets at the Legion hall are among the 350 to 400 on the rolls with Island veteran’s agent Joann Murphy, but Mr. Stafursky estimates they represent only a fraction of the 1,000 Island residents who are service veterans but who are inactive in the veteran community. “The numbers come from the town censuses. I came across them when I was doing some research,” Mr. Stafursky said.

Mr. Stafursky is concerned about the low participation of Island vets, but mentioned several reasons. He noted that U.S. society today is acutely aware today of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the emotional trauma associated with combat service, which may make people not want to associate with veterans’ groups. He said other factors may include bad experiences with VA bureaucracy and busy lives, and added that veterans of the Vietnam War also see comparisons between the positive reception accorded veterans of Mideast conflict and the often negative public reaction that awaited them on their return to civilian life. Then too, he said that eligibility for Veterans Administration (VA) benefits is limited to wartime-service vets by the Department of Defense, though peacetime veterans who can prove a service-related medical condition can receive benefits — a daunting process, Mr. Stafursky and other vets said at the dinner.

The result of these factors is a feeling of “otherness” described by vets, and in Mr. Stafursky’s opinion also plays into the low participation of vets in the veteran community.

Alyssa Norbury has served twice, in the U.S. Air Force from 1991 to 1999 and in the Army between 2005 and 2012. She has been to Iraq twice, once in 2005 on a medevac team when her daughter was also serving in Iraq.

“That was hard,” Ms. Norbury recalled. “She called me when her unit was being shelled. We were also being shelled. We both came through it OK. I have pictures of steaming bits of shrapnel that landed three feet from me.”

“I come to vet events for the camaraderie mostly. When I’m around vets, it’s the only time I feel normal, because they’re the only people who understand how you’re feeling. You can explain what happened to civilians, but they can’t really understand it. It’s not their fault,” she said.

Ms. Norbury attends the weekly support group sponsored by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and would like to see the return of spousal-support group services.

“Yeah, I would say I’m different,” she said. “I don’t have female friends as I did before my service time, and I miss that, but I miss the most having female vets who understand the life, deployment, taking orders. Joann [Murphy] is the only female vet I know. There have to be others among the 1,000 Island vets.”

“One of the reasons that I come to veterans’ events is to honor generations of veterans who got [publicly] lost between World War II and today. A lot of guys, even from Desert Storm [the first Iraq conflict], think the World War II guys were real vets, not them,” said Edgartown police officer and Desert Storm vet Jamie Craig. Mr. Craig attended with daughters Griffin, 6, and Amelia, 13, and son Riley, 15, a naval sea cadet who aspires to military service.

Mr. Stafursky sees positive changes. Recent changes in federal legislation have made access to VA benefits easier, and a renewable $75,000 MVCS state grant providing for Mr. Stafursky’s advocate position is good news for Island vets.

“Getting VA care has been tough, because Islanders always had to go off-Island, but recent federal legislation allows us to get services on-Island at the hospital and a clinic. We have to reach out and let veterans know that, get them involved,” he said.

Several vets and Mr. Stafursky had high praise for Dr. Monty Vanbeber of Hyannis, whose practice focuses on vets. Dr. Vanbeber visits the Island monthly, serving vet medical needs and acting as an aggressive advocate for vets needing services.

“Everyone involved is working hard. They recognize the problem. We’ll get there. In the meantime, we need to reach out a hand to people who sought help and didn’t get it,” Mr. Stafrusky said.