How Charitable Giving Can Help Those Who Served: Q&A with Army and Navy Veterans

In honor of Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day, Philanthropy Roundtable sat down with Kara Hirschfeld, U.S. Army Reserves veteran and digital marketing manager at Philanthropy Roundtable, and Rich Rodriguez, U.S. Navy Reserves service member and director of IT at Philanthropy Roundtable, to talk about their military service and the vital role philanthropy plays in supporting the military and veteran communities. 

Kara Hirschfeld deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom under the 82nd Airborne Division from 2009-2010. She served in RC East, Parwan Province and Bamyan with the New Zealand Kiwis. Her specialization was Military Intelligence, HUMINT. 

Rich Rodriguez deployed to Central America to support counter illicit drug operations [in 2014] and the Middle East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom from 2016-2017, supporting multiple commands in the Southwest Asia area of operations. He currently serves as a Master-at-Arms with a specialty in ground combat. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Could you share the reasons why you joined the military and your thoughts on overall differences regarding the sentiment of those who joined with you compared to the sentiment toward the military now? 

Hirschfeld: Unlike many on the West Coast on September 11, 2001, I was up very early and watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center tower. I remember going to school that day and my math teacher told us her brother was going to deploy. At that point, I knew I wanted to serve our country. 

A couple of years later, I started my first year at the University of Arizona and ran into a military recruiter on campus. The recruiter discussed the sense of patriotism he carried daily, what it meant to serve, how the military could prepare me for the real world and the benefits of helping with college. I was sold on everything. I raised my right hand for the oath of enlistment in a time of war, and little did I know at that time, it would forever change my life for the better.  

I went in when America still rallied around President George W. Bush, picking up a bullhorn and standing on Ground Zero yelling, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you.” Military service members were dying in battle. War footage was on the news daily, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden was at its peak. Today, the honor of serving is not as clear. I hear from veterans and current military members serving today, “People don’t care about us.” Unfortunately, “serving our country” with patriotic pride seems to be a thing of the past. It almost seems as if “it’s not cool” to serve, and that’s evident in current recruitment numbers. I hope this can be turned around because it’s an honor to serve this country. The fulfillment, experiences and the lessons learned can never be taught in a classroom. 

Rodriguez: My father, his father, his family, have all served this country in peacetime and in its conflicts since WWII. After 9-11, my father deployed to the Middle East in support of our country, its values and dedication to service. I had similar aspirations to serve and ended up enlisting in the United States Navy. I look back on the first time I wore my uniform, graduated boot camp, first deployment, as some of the proudest moments in my life.  

It feels like the tides have shifted, and serving for duty and selflessness are no longer reasons for joining the service, but rather, benefits and financial reasons. We are now facing recruitment issues, and in some of our most critical communities, which in my opinion is due to the fact that we have service members at home that are not doing well physically or emotionally, or worse, tragically ending their own lives. I think the sentiment is if we can’t take care of our service members, why would I want to be a part of that? It’s unfortunate, as military service is a beautiful thing. But the lack of support and resources for our brave service members and their families is slowly peeling away at the new generations’ desire to serve. 

Q: Since your military separation, how have you stayed connected to the military community and other veterans?  

Hirschfeld: Within the first month of my deployment in Afghanistan, my friend was killed by an improvised explosive device. His sister created a nonprofit called Catch A Lift Fund, which serves post 9-11 veterans all over our country through fitness and mentorship. I volunteer for this organization and have helped them with development and media appearances to get the word out about their mission. 

Rodriguez: My second deployment was in the Middle East for Operation Enduring Freedom, which is ironic as my father deployed in support of the same operation 15 years earlier [in 2001]. After getting back from that deployment, our unit had someone take their own life, which was incredibly tough for all of us. One of the things that my father and I got really involved in when we both respectively returned home was our local American Legion, Post 139.  

In thinking about local community support for veterans, I had seen programs on the government side to help veterans’ post-deployment not be super effective. Our local Legions have recently partnered with George Mason University to give free family and legal services to service members and veterans, something that can be difficult to properly receive on the military side of things.  

Q: May is National Military Appreciation Month, where we also honor service members on Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day. This month can be a hard time for service members, veterans and their families. What are some ways people can recognize those who are serving or have served? What are some ways people can offer support?  

Hirschfeld: The best way that people can support our service members is to have honest conversations about the military and current events affecting them. Making a social media post once a year on Veterans Day to check the box is not enough. Nor is saying Happy Memorial Day when there is nothing happy about it.  

The most alarming news I’ve seen recently is the record number of “cries for help” on the Veterans Crisis Line in March. It was the highest volume ever, even more than during COVID or after the Afghanistan withdrawal. Many say, “The war is over,” but there are decades of veterans that are suffering from multiple deployments, PTSD and other trauma stemming from service. We need to have a conversation on how to address their ongoing needs. 

Rodriguez: It’s all about having hard conversations with service members, and volunteerism in your own local community. People might not actually realize service members need support, whether that’s a person to talk to or mental or physical health support. We live in 2023 where everyone has some kind of social media presence, which presents a great opportunity for organizations that can tap into their communities and can make veterans aware of events or opportunities that are going on.  

I think a lot of people don’t realize the day-to-day sacrifices that military members and their families have made to keep our status as the best and most prosperous country in the world. Volunteering, or even saying thank you for your service, whether it’s on a social media post or if you see someone walking in uniform, really does go a long way. 

Q: As veterans, in your experience, what are some of the most common needs of those returning to civilian life after serving? 

Hirschfeld: Outside organizations are crucial to bridging the gap between active duty and civilian life. Programs that assist with fitness and mentorship, resume-building workshops and apprenticeships can tremendously help. So many skills learned in the military are equivalent to civilian jobs, sometimes our veterans just need assistance making those connections. 

Rodriguez: I think there’s a specific point where you separate from active duty to civilian life that’s incredibly important that our current reintegration system is lacking. When you leave active duty, you take part in multiple reintegration efforts that are available and required through the military for its departing service members. I’ve gone through these programs and found them incredibly unhelpful. I think it’s a very, very critical, maybe three-month period that we’re just missing the mark on entirely, especially when it comes to job stability, family support and mental health when leaving the military.  

I do think this creates a fantastic opportunity to have local organizations assist with some of these transition items—to really have that dialogue and have someone on the civilian side in local communities help service members through that transition.  

Q: How important are veteran-centered charities, and how do they make up for when the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or military falls short in addressing these needs? 

Hirschfeld: There are some tremendous veteran-centered charities that address mental health, which is one of the top issues veterans are facing. I lived in Arizona during the VA waitlist scandal, where veterans died waiting for care. It became ground zero for Veterans Affairs health care reform. Reform has been made over the years, but we can still do much more for our veterans in the system and through outside charities. 

Rodriguez: I hate to keep harping on health but it’s just such a big deal to me. When I was deployed, I had a shipmate who fractured his lower back. He went to the doctor that was on our Forward Operating Base (FOB) who essentially told him to “suck it up” and gave him some Tylenol. He still has back problems, but the VA claims it wasn’t service connected so he cannot be compensated for it. It’s a part of a larger problem, which leads me to believe I think there’s a big need for VA reform to get our veterans the care they actually need. There’s a lot of organizations that are trying to spread awareness and bridge this gap. Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) is trying to tackle some of these issues head-on from a policy perspective. 

As a country, one of our biggest priorities should be making sure our service members are cared for mentally and physically. I think organizations that can supplement the care that the VA would provide are incredibly helpful and have been proven more effective than government solutions. At the bases I have been stationed at, they sometimes wouldn’t let us see people externally until we got a referral, which can take months and sometimes gets denied. Giving people the opportunity to seek out that care in the way that they think is best for them I think will go a long way. 

Q: Are there any opportunities that you see where philanthropy and nonprofits can step up to help tackle some of the challenges and needs we’ve discussed? Is there a service or support that we are failing to provide that might be an opportunity for civil society to innovate and better provide than the government?  

Hirschfeld: We need philanthropy and nonprofits to fill that gap where the federal government fails to help veterans. Too many veterans slip through the cracks and need help. The transition to the civilian world can be challenging for most. Creating that sense of community and camaraderie experienced in active duty, but in post-active duty, can save veteran lives. This can be through mentorship, fitness, therapy, sports teams, etc. Community is everything.   

Rodriguez: It’s specifically around that three- to six-month window of your transition from military service. You can bring local community ambassadors into the picture to help with that transition, rather than have this process be driven by government programs that ultimately end up doing nothing. Nonprofits, local businesses and foundations have the agility to assist in having checkpoints with service members that are leaving the military on issues like physical or mental health care, supplementing costs of health care that the VA won’t cover or something as simple as a small grant for a work certification.  

Q: What do you think is most important for donors to consider when evaluating and giving to veteran-centered charities? 

Hirschfeld: Donors should look at two data points with the first being how many veterans are being served, and the second is the total administration costs vs. the funds actually helping veterans. Unfortunately, over the years, there have been too many fraudulent veteran charity schemes aimed at helping disabled and wounded veterans. It’s imperative to do your homework and ensure the organization is legitimate and the money is directly helping veterans. 

Rodriguez: I would look at their financial disclosures to find out where the money is actually going, and what the split is for operational costs versus their programmatic work. Due diligence around organizations is incredibly important in making sure that the funds are going toward the cause you want to support. 

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