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.
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.”
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
just wanted to run away. They don’t want to be bothered.”
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.
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.
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
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
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
“These guys have seen me around these villages and
they trust me,” Bailey
said. “I know most of them. I know their kids.”
said Moore, with whom he served in Vietnam 38 years ago,
is a key player in the effort and the pilot with the most
“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.”
Baird underscores the importance of trust with the veterans
'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.”
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.
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.
real happy because now he can buy fuel oil,” Bailey
Bailey is direct when dealing with veterans. “I
try to explain to them, ‘Look,
guys, you’re old and you’re sick now,’” he
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.
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.”