By Thomas Ferraro
When state Del. C.T. Wilson, an ex-combat soldier, welcomed more than two dozen fellow veterans to the state capital recently, he urged them to step up, speak out and be heard.
“It is not enough to allow our elected officials to wave their flag of veterans support every four years,” said Wilson (D-Bryans Road). “Let them know that they will be held accountable for their actions and support—or lack thereof.”
Wilson’s message, delivered in an open letter and pep talk, opened Veterans Legislative Day, hosted on Feb. 9 by AARP Maryland and the General Assembly’s Maryland Veterans Caucus, which Wilson helps chair.
The gathering kicked off several outreach efforts by AARP Maryland to the state’s more than 423,000 vets. The goal is to honor these men and women while helping them with challenges that range from housing and health care to transitioning to civilian life and retirement.
Outreach activities include:
Creating a Veteran Corps to track legislation, such as a call for a study on the availability and accessibility of health services.
Sending food and supplies to the homes of veterans in need.
Teaming up with the National Association for Black Veterans by hosting the annual Buffalo Soldiers Memorial Banquet at Morgan State University.
Participating in a federal program saluting those who served during the Vietnam War with a lapel pin that reads, “A grateful nation thanks and honors you.”
AARP Maryland has partnered with the Defense Department to present more than 600 Vietnam-era vets with the pin.
Among those “pinned” was Peter Merrell, 71, a retired driver’s education teacher from Stevensville who served as a Navy cryptologist from 1968 to 1988.
He recalled being disdained by a public that had turned against the war. “I appreciated the pin, but my immediate gut reaction was ‘too little, too late’ for the disrespect that we faced back then,” he said.
The AARP Maryland outreach efforts recognize that about 40 percent of veterans in the state are 65 or older.
“When people who have served and defended this nation speak out, they deserve to be heard,” said AARP Maryland President Clarence “Tiger” Davis, 74, an Air Force vet who was a state delegate for 24 years.
Davis said AARP helps vets while vets help the organization. He said veterans give it added clout, particularly on high-priority issues such as protecting Social Security. “Having vets on board is key,” he said.
John Henkel, 63, a disabled Vietnam-era vet, is AARP Maryland’s veterans coordinator. “Veterans need to know what’s available to them,” said Henkel, who serves as a volunteer. “They need to get out and be active so that their interests are met.”
State Sen. John Astle (D-Annapolis), 73, who received two Purple Heart medals in Vietnam, said he expects the legislature to respond.
“We went through a long time when people were not responsive to veterans,” Astle said. “But because of Iraq and Afghanistan, people are more aware of the sacrifice by veterans and more willing to acknowledge it.”
Thomas Ferraro is a writer living in Davidsonville, Md.