Church bells rang out on military bases, in places of worship and in communities worldwide on Sunday, Nov. 11 — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — a somber reminder of Armistice Day which marked the official end of World War I exactly one century ago.
Twenty-four hours later, give or take, several dozen veterans, presented with clothing for the coming colder months and served by a group of local volunteers, prepared to break bread during a special luncheon at Access Housing Southeast Veterans Center — a place to which the vets refer with pride, “home.” It would be one of countless examples of Americans honoring the contributions of former members of our country’s armed forces on this year’s Veterans Day.
But for those who volunteered at the Southeast-based veterans center, Access Housing Inc., DC, they would witness something rare and profound. That’s because for this “family” of vets, they’ve solidified their bond not along the usual method of bloodlines but upon mutual respect, memories of triumph in the face of insurmountable odds and the reality that their survival has long rested on faith and belief in their comrades — in each other.
“Living here is like being part of a family — it’s really special for me because I don’t have any children and the other members of my biological family are all gone,” said John “Monk” Miller, 95, a veteran of World War II and the Center’s oldest resident.
Miller spoke candidly about his years of active duty in the U.S. Army in which he served as a gunner: crossing the English Channel, being part of the forces who stormed the opposition on D-Day and friends who he remembers and still misses — men with whom he served as part of the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion.
“I have a lot of stories from those days and I tell them often,” he said. “But if I had to do it all over again, I don’t think I would. I’m grateful to have wonderful friends who come by and take me out as much as I want. I like to sit back and read but I also enjoy drinking a single malt scotch,” said the Portsmouth native who met the Washington Informer’s founder and publisher, Dr. Calvin Rolark Sr., during a trip to New York that would establish a lifelong friendship.
“I liked hanging out with him and he was brilliant — like he had degrees from everywhere,” Miller said.
How the Center Was Formed
Greg Crawford, 49, serves as the executive director — a position he’s held since 1999. He followed in his father’s footsteps, H.R. Crawford, a former D.C. Council member for Ward 7 for 20 years. Before that he served as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Richard Nixon and was a disabled veteran.
“My father was concerned because so many veterans were being overlooked and needed housing,” said Crawford, a native Washingtonian who said he decided one day to leave his government job in search of finding something that would be more fulfilling.
“So, in 1985, my father created the Southeast Veterans Service Center and the Chesapeake Veterans House in Southeast. He said someone had to show that they cared about them. After opening the doors, veterans in D.C. could count on safe housing, meals, healthcare and other support services to assist in their transition to civilian life. That was the beginning.”
“I wanted to continue my father’s legacy. That’s what motivates me — his commitment to public service and to our veterans,” he said, adding that both men and women, from 25 to 98 years old, live at the center which has 94 total units available for occupancy.
“We need to do some major renovations on our buildings and we always need volunteers — folks who can help with training, answering the phones, painting, cleaning up the grounds — you name it. During the holidays, we have a lot of people lend a hand or donate funds, but our veterans need help year-round. Homelessness is their greatest challenge, along with the things that often lead to that situation: substance abuse, mental health challenges, physical ailments and PTSD.”
“But we have success stories too like one young man I remember who had returned from Iraq, had exhausted all of his funds and couldn’t go back home to his girlfriend or his mother. He stayed with us for about six months and we helped him with job training. We helped him reconnect with his girlfriend. Now he has his own home and is the father of two young boys. He looks well and he’s doing just fine,” Crawford said.
Volunteers Make All the Difference
During the Veterans Day luncheon, volunteers came from several parts of the area and from different places of employment. But they worked together. Some, like several members from the District’s Engine Company #33, helped unload supplies, later preparing and serving food.
“We have several veterans in our department and always love to infuse ourselves in ways other than in emergency situations that are the basis of our jobs,” said Doug Buchanan, chief communications officer, DC Fire and EMS. “We want to be part of the community in which we serve and connect with them. We came today to give back to our nation’s best.”
One family who helped on Monday has become regular volunteers — something they’ve been doing for years even though they live in Oxon Hill, Maryland.
“We are good neighbors and we do whatever we can, whenever we can because of the superior standard of care that Greg and his team provide to our veterans,” said Beth Myers, 67, whose son Brent Myers-Lawson and her husband, David Lawson, 96, a veteran himself, have formed a great relationship with Crawford, his team and the residents according to Beth Myers.
“We’re here four or five times a week,” she said. “They have a holistic approach that they use to care for each individual and it’s quite impressive. I just hope that one day more of our leaders and those who live in the region will realize that whether you live in D.C. or in Maryland, the challenges our veterans face are very much the same. There has to be a way we can share resources and do a better job in extending our hands to the other side of the street.”