Local and National Resources Help Veterans Navigate Post-Military Life
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Justin Sicking
Matt Modleski enlisted in the Air Force in 1980 fresh out of high school. During his 20 years of service, he served as a jet engine mechanic, air traffic controller, pilot, and pilot instructor. In August of 1985, a car bomb in Ramstein, Germany, killed 19-year-old Airman Frank Scarton. Modleski, just 22 at the time, was tasked to be Scarton’s escort.
“It was humbling to have that duty assigned, but for a young kid to be asked to do that really brought home the gravity of what the job was,” Modleski says. “I don’t think I ever looked at the uniform the same way after that. It was a sobering reality of what it meant to be in the military.”
The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) is a diverse organization, and the largest percentage of their membership is still Vietnam veterans. According to Dan Clare, chief communications and outreach officer with the DAV, Vietnam veterans are focused on making sure the next generation gets a different kind of welcome than they received when returning home.
“Our tagline is, ‘Keeping our promise to America’s veterans,’” Clare says. “We provide services that are substantive and important to veterans, to make sure they are able to get a different jumpstart on their lives as they transition out of military service.”
They start by making sure veterans get the benefits they earned. The DAV also helps veterans find employment by hosting career fairs that connect veterans with potential employers. They are sure to recognize those employers who hire veterans. The City of Carmel currently employs 75 veterans.
“Some employers assume that veterans have PTSD from combat experience and are ‘broken,’ and therefore not a good fit for their organization,” Clare says.
Fortunately, mental health challenges are addressed much more frequently these days. In fact, the DAV funded the research that was behind getting PTSD recognized by the American Psychological Association.
“Veterans who enroll in Veterans Affairs health care are less likely to commit suicide than other veterans,” Clare says.
The Carmel Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post aids veterans by having a certified veterans service officer on call to assist with mental and/or financial concerns. Any veteran seeking mental help or suicide prevention can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (press 1). Ken Lange, senior vice commander of the Carmel VFW Post 10003, maintains that the best resource available to veterans is companionship with other veterans who share similar experiences.
“Veterans organizations such as the VFW and American Legion, the Veterans Administration, and local veterans service officers, which we have one at our Carmel VFW, assist veterans with an array of issues they may have, along with their spouses,” Lange says.
Veterans service officers also help veterans with the paperwork of VA medical claims and compensation. Plus, they provide an experienced Honor Guard for the military funerals they support throughout the year.
The old “bar and lounge operation” stigma that goes along with veteran organizations is starting to fade as soldiers of all ages and stages of life utilize services and resources.
“It used to be pretty unusual to find someone who was a three-war veteran,” Clare says. “That was usually World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Now you have Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so many different operations going on simultaneously across the world that our military is participating in, so the needs are greater because they have had to do multiple war deployments over the course of the last 20 years.”
Later in his military career, Modleski was hired into the United States Air Force Thunderbirds to fly as a solo pilot for the 1996 and 1997 show seasons. He did six weeks in Europe, flying the red, white and blue jets in Romania where they were welcomed warmly.
“The crowds were pro-American,” Modleski says. “Tens of thousands of people were enthused that we were there and so happy to feel their own freedom because it was relatively soon after Ceausescu was overthrown. It was really powerful.”
Modleski, who has two sons, Keaton, 20, and Jacob, 16, with his wife Dianne, says the highlights of his military experience were the friendships that were formed.
“The older we get, the more those friendships matter as you look at the picture that is your life in the rearview mirror,” Modleski says.
Each year the City of Carmel hosts a Veterans Day Ceremony to celebrate veterans in the community. The program incorporates area elementary school choirs, essays written by middle school students, and posters created by students from kindergarten through fifth grade. These essays and posters will remain on display at the Monon Community Center throughout November. Modleski will also speak at the ceremony.
“The best ways civilians can honor our servicemen and women is by just saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Lange says. “We don’t expect anything except respect, support and understanding.”
You can also put your gratitude into action by volunteering to drive for a local veteran organization, as reliable transportation, especially to medical appointments, is always needed. Along the way, strike up a conversation.
“I find that veterans generally keep their time in the military to themselves, but if asked, they have some great stories to tell,” Modleski says. “I encourage everyone to sit down with a veteran and ask.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs (va.gov), the Carmel VFW (317-846-0917), the American Legion (legion.org), and the Indiana Veterans Center (indianapolis.va.gov) all offer great resources. Visit their websites or call them to learn more.