Before we observe Veteran’s Day on November 11, Woman Around Town completes a three-part series by career strategist Jason Veduccio interviewing experts who help returning warriors re-enter the workplace. This week, Jason talks with Leslie Lightfoot who is the Founder and Executive Director of the Veteran’s Homestead Inc., an independent, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Fitchburg, Massachusetts whose mission is to provide medical, psychological, and spiritual care to veterans who are diagnosed with a terminal illness, elderly, disabled, or otherwise in need.
Part III – Holistic Help for Veterans
Many might think of a veteran’s search for work as something that begins with a resume and an interview but in many cases that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Returning soldiers face numerous challenges, beginning with finding proper housing and medical care. In the last part to this series I went a bit deeper into the roots of the problem, still under the assumption that veterans are in the best position to help their fellow veterans – with our support.
This brought me to Leslie Lightfoot, a humble and soft-spoken woman quietly doing incredible things for veterans on a national level. After learning of her organization and its work I was eager to meet this person who works tirelessly to develop a safety net for those courageous soldiers who return most in need. Yet when speaking with her she was sturdy in her humility, always pointing the attention to others, to the veterans and their families. I mentioned to her a few times that her story was important too, if only because through it we will learn of other stories. (Please see below for a more complete bio of Leslie Lightfoot.)
How did you become interested in the armed services? Did you come from a military family?
My father and uncles were all World War II veterans, but upon my father’s return from his duty in Germany he left the service for civilian life so I wasn’t necessarily an “army brat” but it was then I became interested in the military.
Was it then that you knew you wanted to follow in his footsteps in some way?
When I was nine years old my father gave me his Purple Heart and though at that age I didn’t know exactly what it was, I knew it was something very important to him and it affected me deeply. Then because of the times we were in, a very good friend of mine got killed in Vietnam and that also awakened me to something. I came from a middle class background in Canton, Ohio and most of the kids from my neighborhood were drafted, and so all of it was very much on my mind at the time. But when my friend got killed it really became something I felt strongly about, so at the end of high school I wanted to save the world as they say, and I joined, though at that time they weren’t sending female medics to Vietnam, they only sent nurses, so I ended up in Germany – just like my father.
What was it like coming back from that war as a female veteran?
Everyone knew that if you were a male you were probably drafted but as a woman they knew that you had chosen to join and because of the anti-war sentiment at the time I remember returning and going to a basketball game in Ohio wearing my uniform and I was so proud yet people looked at me like I was a pariah – so it set the stage for me not wanting to tell anyone I was a vet for a while.
When did it change for you and what brought you to working with veterans?
I went to school in Massachusetts and got a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in psychology and I became board certified in traumatic stress. I started to work with combat vets at a shelter in Boston, but at the same time I was also taking workshops in Virginia with famed psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who wrote On Death and Dying. All of this got me involved but it truly crystallized when I met this one man, his name was Tom Evans, a veteran of Korea. He was in the hospital and he couldn’t stay because he had no insurance, and he had no family, and he was dying of cancer with just eight months to live. So upon seeing this I talked to my family and we agreed to take him in but sadly he died that weekend. So that was the defining moment of “something needs to be done here” for me and that’s how the veteran’s hospice got started, a twelve bed facility in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
Many times the physical challenges are more obvious and those need acute attention, but what people don’t realize, even veterans themselves at times, is that other factors such as alcohol abuse can really exacerbate their problems. And some don’t have close family relationships and we try to encourage them to become closer if it’s possible. Others are now older and their spouses have passed or they have a hard time living on a small pension. So the problems are many but as they heal, work becomes an important part of the equation.
How did your efforts expand?
As we saw veterans with more diverse problems, we started something called the Armistice Homestead that used to be a rest home so we made that an aftercare program for veterans for when they leave an alcohol treatment center. It’s a place where they can live while they look for work and for a place of their own. After that we opened a farm in New Hampshire, where we use animal therapy and the veterans tend to the farm. It’s a very structured program but it does so well because these animals have no judgments and seeing the way these veterans would care for them, it really helps.
I noticed you opened a program in Puerto Rico. How did that come about?
After the farm we opened a program in Puerto Rico because it’s a part of the United States, and the amount of veterans per capita is greater than in any other state or commonwealth. According to my friends in combat, Puerto Ricans make fantastic soldiers and are extremely patriotic.
What are you working on most recently?
We have opened Northeast Veteran’s Training and Rehabilitation Center in Gardner, Massachusetts where vets can come with their whole families. We have ten acres of land and twenty condos. They pay on a sliding scale depending on what they can afford. In addition, they pay no heat or electricity because we are geothermal and use photovoltaics to capture solar energy. The local college there, Mount Wachusett Community College not only offers education for the veteran but also offers a free education to the spouse – which is terrific. And then all forms of counseling are available. Many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress, which is mostly misunderstood by so many.
What is PTS ?
PTS is something many try to define but it’s sprawling. It’s not always just the combat stress. Sometimes things that happened before they even joined were enough for people to have psychological stress after leaving the armed services. Anyone who has been traumatized can be showing signs of stress and some people won’t recognize it.
In terms of treatment for PTS, what is your methodology?
Shut up and wear beige. The people working with anyone who is traumatized you need to listen, listen, listen. And if you’ve been in the military it does help because certain things don’t have to be explained. So I tend to shut up and wear beige.
What do your programs do to help get them work?
Because we always try and treat the whole person, we help them with everything from resumes to tutors to free education arrangements with local schools. Anything they need to prepare, we try to provide. One of our caseworker’s even brought in an outfit for someone to wear to an interview. We can do this because we keep the size of our facilities manageable.
Are any corporations doing more than others to hire Veterans?
Yes. Home Depot hires a lot of our veterans, I don’t know if it’s policy for them but I know they do. And that’s on a national level. Other places that work in defense do as well – for instance Raytheon also hires a lot of veterans. But across the board it’s not as common it should be.
Is there anything someone reading this can do to help?
Educate, educate, educate – yourself and others! And learn about PTS. Not everyone who has it is so obvious, and just because they have it does NOT mean they can’t function. It just means you have to learn to notice it and how it affects the person’s point of view and that takes education.
If anyone reading this knows a Veteran returning from duty, where can they get information that we can learn from?
I suggest contacting the Department of Veterans Services in Massachusetts or a place like the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts to start. (Editor’s note: These groups can help you find agencies in your own area to help.) Then, depending on your need, keep reading, and ask for help. Educate, educate, educate is always part of the solution.
Leslie served in the Army as a medic from 1967 – 1970, then pursued and obtained a bachelors and a master’s degree in psychology. She is also a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress. Leslie has been serving the needs of the veteran community since she left the army in 1970, is a nationally recognized expert on PTSD and has developed seven successful projects for veterans in need. Leslie has served on the boards of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, The Central MA Coalition for Homeless Veterans, The Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund and on the Advisory Committee to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington D.C. and the Governor of Massachusetts. Her Awards include Hometown Hero Award from both Worcester Magazine and Boston radio station WTKK, the DAR Medal of Honor, Unsung Hero award for Civic Engagement from Mount Wachusett Community College and an array of certificates of appreciation from federal, state and local dignitaries. She has two daughters and a son that are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.