By Blair Drake, MOAA Contributing Editor
When former Army Capt. Stephen Moss learned the United Way of Broward County Florida was starting a program to support veterans, he knew this was his opportunity.
His daughter, Shannon, had been injured while serving in Iraq and honorably discharged. Because of complications and red tape, it took two years until she was able to have reconstructive surgery on her badly damaged shoulder. But it was too late.
“In the hospital room, we met with the surgeon, who said, ‘I did the best I could, but the system failed. The wait was too long. She’ll have a permanent disability in her shoulder,’” recalls Moss.
Because Shannon needed to keep her shoulder immobile for several months, she couldn’t work or go back to school. Her doctor also recommended she have six months of physical therapy. However, the VA would only provide three and it would take up to a full year to receive her first disability check.
Moss asked the doctor what happens to other veterans who don’t have the support of parents or family in this type of situation. The doctor bluntly replied, “They go homeless.”
“At that moment, I hoped some day I would have an opportunity to change that system,” Moss says. “It’s horrible that you served your country and then can’t afford to take care of yourself.”
Fast-forward to January 2013, and Moss is chair of the United Way of Broward County’s newly launched Mission United program. The goal is to provide employment, housing, and legal services to help servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan readjust to civilian life.
Within the first few months, Moss says, they realized veterans of all generations also needed assistance, so they expanded the program to include all veterans and their families.
Stephen Moss, center, pictured with his wife, Rhoda, left, and daughter, Shannon, right, helped the United Way of Broward County start Mission United. (Courtesy of Dolphin Digital Media)
Today, Mission United of Broward County has helped over 10,000 veterans with housing, employment, pro bono legal services, health and health care, education, and financial services. Veterans and their families can connect with these services by calling the United Way 211 number, available 24/7. When veterans dial 2-1-1, trained United Way information and referral specialists will assess their needs and turn them over to a case manager who becomes the point of contact and reaches out to the veteran to meet with them and get them the services they need.
Since the launch of Mission United of Broward County, 23 United Ways across the country have launched Mission United programs in their communities.
While each program is different based on the needs of local veterans and their families and services provided in the community, a critical component for all is partnerships with other community groups.
“It’s a very collaborative effort,” explains Moss, now founding chair of the Mission United Advisory Council. “In every community we start, there are volunteers who reach out to every other organization that provides services to veterans and their families about how they can work together.”
Chapters Join the Cause
Among those organizations are MOAA chapters. In Florida, the Broward County, Historic Mayport, Sarasota, and Lee Coast chapters all have developed relationships with Mission United in their communities. The Lee Coast Chapter has been a sponsor organization of United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee Counties’ Mission United since its start in November 2016. For several years prior, the chapter had been meeting monthly with representatives from other community organizations to address the unmet needs of veterans and servicemembers and their families, but the groups were lacking a single entity to coordinate these important services and resources.
“I had looked for that coordinator since we started,” says Rear Adm. Roger Triftshauser, USN (Ret), past president of the Lee Coast Chapter and a Mission United stakeholder. “Without someone answering that call 24/7, we couldn’t move forward and be successful. We were at a crossroads, but this collaboration [with the United Way] has been imperative to carry on with what we started.”
To date, Mission United of Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Okeechobee Counties has assisted over 3,000 veterans. “It’s filling the gaps for these veterans,” says Triftshauser. “There’s a need, and the number of veterans we’ve served is proof of that.”
In addition to serving as a sponsor organization, the Lee Coast Chapter has made monetary donations — of $5,000 in both 2019 and 2018 — to the program.
Triftshauser and Moss want to see Mission United continue to expand throughout the country, and both agree partnerships with community groups, like MOAA chapters, is a key component of that growth.
“MOAA is the perfect partner to work together to assist veterans and their families,” says Moss, who joined the Broward County Chapter.
“It’s the grassroots efforts from community groups that help make these programs successful,” Triftshauser says. “These pro bono services are out there for veterans, they just don’t know about them. We’ve got something, and we’ve got to make it work.”