Veterans are active members of the Island community, but some need support when returning home after finishing active duty. One group that is working to provide veterans with support is the Martha’s Vineyard veterans transitional and affordable housing committee, begun by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.
Members of the committee sat down with The Times at Community Services to share what they do and what is coming next. The committee consists of a mixture of veterans and civilians, some of whom were invited to join, while others stepped up to volunteer to serve in the group. Talks about forming this committee began around three years ago, according to Community Services director of veteran services Tom Bennett.
“A lot of us were in the talk for veterans. We went from that to … doing this for the homeless guys,” Bennett said, adding, “We identified housing and homelessness as the key need on the Island. From that, this committee was developed.”
Various other services are also available for veterans on the Island, including access to Dukes County veterans service officer Randy Dull, and transportation help, according to Community Services veterans outreach advocate Bob Tankard.
“Randy and I work hand-in-hand in a lot of things,” Tankard said.
Tankard said these services are necessary since “many of our vets don’t want to leave the Vineyard.” Additionally, some needs can grow into a process that may take longer than some other requests, such as finding a missing DD-214 form, a document given to service members who retired, separated from the military, or were discharged from active duty.
There are also community partners who support the committee and its work to help veterans, according to the committee co-chair and retired Air Force military chaplain David Berube. A recent and major milestone for the group was getting a bid process started for 12 affordable housing units for veterans in Oak Bluffs.
“That has actually accelerated pretty quickly. We were very grateful that the town of Oak Bluffs came on board very quickly,” Berube said. “Hopefully, within a couple of years, we’ll have houses.”
Berube said more people will be invited to participate in the committee’s efforts. “Ultimately, what that works out to is us being in the community, because the key to all of this really is community support. It’s not an insular project. It really requires the community to be a part of it,” he said.
An example that committee co-chair Jane Chandler gave for community outreach was a fall cookout at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury, which provided a space for ideas and information to be shared.
“We did get some emails and some responses. It was great,” she said.
The committee members also take their own steps to help veterans. Bennett and committee member and Vietnam War veteran Paul Schultz deliver food to homebound veterans on the third Wednesday of every month for those who have difficulty affording groceries. Schultz said the food comes to American Legion Post 257 in Tisbury.
“Bob does Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs. I do part of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. We’re there for a couple of hours doing that,” Schultz said.
Berube mentioned that they look for people with different types of skill sets to work with the committee. Anita Botti, a demographer by trade, is one of the members of the committee.
“It’s been organic. It’s come from within. It started with Bob and Tom and it’s just grown,” Botti said about the group.
Botti shared the committee’s 2019 data on the veteran population that confirmed that there are 931 veterans on Martha’s Vineyard. Botti said an updated count, which is planned for the near future, would be closer to 1,000. The 2019 numbers reveal that nearly half, 43.3 percent, served in the Vietnam War. Similarly, those 75 years or older comprise 42.6 percent, with the next largest age group being 65 to 74 years old at 28.6 percent. The racial makeup showed 91.6 percent were white with the next largest group being Black at 8.2 percent. Most veterans on Martha’s Vineyard are male (89.7 percent) and over half (60.4 percent) of the total population have no disabilities.
While there are other issues the committee wants to pursue, Berube said the affordable housing units in Oak Bluffs are the current programmatic focus. Berube said 4 percent of the Island’s veteran population is homeless at this time.
“While we get this thing landed and settled, this is what we’re going to focus on. I mean, there’s a ton of stuff we can do and probably will do, but for now, we’re really focused on this,” Berube said, adding that this lets the committee avoid being distracted. However, the committee does meet veteran needs when they arise.
Tankard said the plan is to have a case manager and programmatic support for the affordable housing inhabitants.
Aquinnah veterans service officer and select board member Tom Murphy, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, commended the committee and Oak Bluffs for getting to the request for proposal phase of the affordable housing project.
“The primary objective of this committee was to get this project going and it accomplished that. Now, we want to keep the community involved, we want to keep the community updated, and we want to ask for financial support for donations from the greater community to help support this project,” Murphy said by phone.
Later, Berube made a point as to why veteran housing is important, and particularly living in close proximity to each other.
“If you join the military, you become a part of a clan and when you leave, the first thing you lose is that. So now you’ve lost your clan, you’ve lost your people. What we are doing here is reestablishing that. In some sense, we’re bringing people back home. Back into the clan, back into the fold,” Berube said.
Veterans who are missing this piece of their lives can struggle, according to Berube, who pointed to the national veteran suicide rate of around 22 lives lost per day. Berube said this aspect is part of why he works with the committee.
“I think this is part of the x-factor. Not just housing but bringing people into veteran housing, putting them with other veterans in a community run by the veteran community. I think bringing people back addresses that x-factor and it’s that reminder of that extra thing that’s a part of being in the military community,” Berube said.
Tankard said there was a healthy attitude in the community toward the committee’s work.
“With all of us doing what we need to do, it’ll all work out. Our veteran brothers and sisters will be very placed,” Tankard said.