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january/february 2007

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Veterans Aviation Outreach

BY JIM BELSHAW

In the course of his 20-year Army career, Maurice Bailey, president of VVA Chapter 903 in Mat-Su, Alaska, pulled two tours in Vietnam and one in Alaska. He thought Alaska was a “cool place” and went back there to live. It was different from anything he’d known, and he liked things that were different. Since 1980, the mechanic-turned-pilot has flown small, fixed-wing aircraft around the state. With a handful of other veteran-pilots, he’s hoping to turn those long years of experience in the air into something that will help Alaska’s aging veteran population.

As Bailey himself got a little older, he said he decided to put in for “some VA disability stuff—Agent Orange-related and PTSD. Just a whole gamut of stuff.”

He said the VA experience “wasn’t a cakewalk,” but when it was done the VA found him to be 90 percent disabled. That got him to thinking about other veterans, 74,000 of whom live in Alaska, some in remote villages far from any kind of service, Alaska being a good place to be alone if that’s your desire. There are 234 villages in Alaska. They range in population from 50 to 500. A big town might have as many as 2,000.

“A lot of people are hiding,” Bailey said. “They just wanted to run away. They don’t want to be bothered.”

He’d spent many years flying to such places. While he noticed the large number of veterans, he didn’t give it much thought until he went through his own VA experience. He wondered how many of Alaska’s veterans might be so far removed that they didn’t know they had benefits coming, let alone how to get them.
He became a veterans’ service officer. It seemed a natural for him. He met men he hadn’t expected to meet.

“I met World War II guys,” he said. “One guy in particular, a tough old guy, 84 years old. He was gut shot twice, medically discharged, and given a 30 percent disability. He quietly disappeared into the wilds of Alaska. When I met him, he was still flying airplanes. The oldest guy I saw was 90 years old.”

He says he doesn’t mean to criticize the VA when he says it needs to do outreach, but there’s not much in the way of outreach. He thinks that if the VA did a credible job of outreach, it would be overwhelmed by the needs of veterans. He thought perhaps a smaller number of people working on a modest scale might be a good place to begin.

Maurice Bailey got together with other veteran-pilots—Tom Baird and Joe Stanistreet (no longer with VAO) and Chuck Moore—to talk about the possibility of doing outreach themselves. Bailey had been doing it on his own for a year and asked his friends if they’d like to join him. A fourth later joined the group—Jim Kendall, a photographer and navigator.

From those conversations grew Veterans Aviation Outreach, Inc., three veteran-pilots flying their own airplanes to reach people who live “off the road” in a place not known to have many roads. Many of those veterans live in what is described as “survival mode,” barely existing, often finding comfort in alcohol, only to have the alcohol lead to unemployment.

From the beginning, Bailey said, trust was the critical factor in the success they’ve had. Because of his long experience flying around Alaska, he came to know many of the distant veterans. It made a difference when he broached the subject of benefits. By way of illustration, he tells of another veteran who went to a small village where no one came out to greet him. But when the Veterans Aviation Outreach went to the same place, they signed up 29 people in two days for health care and other benefits.

“These guys have seen me around these villages and they trust me,” Bailey said. “I know most of them. I know their kids.”

Bailey said Moore, with whom he served in Vietnam 38 years ago, is a key player in the effort and the pilot with the most experience.

“He was a young pilot (19) and I was the old man (25),” Bailey said. “He flew gunships. He left the Army and went into the Navy to fly jets. He flies 90 percent of the missions for VAO. At this time he also flies for the State of Alaska. We have three pilots and four airplanes. Chuck owns two airplanes and the other two are owned by Tom Baird and myself.”

Tom Baird underscores the importance of trust with the veterans community.

'When I travel in the bush, most of the contacts are developed by these kinds of relationships,” he said. “Once you establish a relationship with an individual as a friend, you end up being very steadfast friends. Individual homes are open to one another. Most of the people in this state will stop and give you a hand if you need it. We want to reach the un-reached who are out of sight and out of mind. These individuals are extremely independent. They like to do things for themselves whether they can or not.”

Bailey says the four members of Veterans Aviation Outreach have no grand illusions. They try to do “small stuff.” They sign up people for VA benefits; they recruit new VVA members. Believing there is strength in numbers, they do what they can to build the veterans community.

They built a wheelchair ramp for a veteran to get in and out of his house. He’s 50, Bailey said, and he’d “given up on life.” So they do small things that will enhance that life.

They put in a claim for a veteran suffering from diabetes. It took eight months to settle, but the veteran received $4,000 in back pay and now gets $200 a month for the rest of his life.

“He’s real happy because now he can buy fuel oil,” Bailey said.

Bailey is direct when dealing with veterans. “I try to explain to them, ‘Look, guys, you’re old and you’re sick now,’” he said.

Tom Baird said decisions between quantity and quality are always difficult.

“We’ve run into difficulty making decisions about reaching as many people as we can or making sure those we have contacted are taken care of before we move on,” he said. “Because of the difficulties of processing and getting things done, it’s looking like we’re going to go for quality first. These guys already had been promised the world and gotten nothing, so it makes no sense to go out there if we’re not going to be able to do it right.”

Maurice Bailey counts his blessings and speaks of a duty to share them.

“Life has been pretty good to me,” he said. “I live pretty good. But we’re here for more than to just live pretty good. We’re here to help people when they need it.”

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