A casual conversation between two neighbors set everything in motion…
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still young in 2003. Jeannie Lehowicz, the Director of Programs for Severely Wounded Service Members, had noticed something during her work with severely wounded veterans at Walter Reed and Bethesda Medical Centers: The service personnel recovering there were not just struggling with their wounds, they also were struggling with the realization that their military careers were suddenly over.
The men and women Lehowicz was helping at these facilities were young. Most had enlisted as teenagers—the military was their first job, and many had hoped to make it their careers. Roadside bombs and mortar rounds had changed their plans in a split second. The realization they would soon be forced to enter the job market was yet another challenge in a long string of unforseen challenges.
Far too many simply did not have proper clothing to wear to job interviews.
As fate would have it, the neighbor Lehowicz was speaking to, Bob Shepherd, was in a position to help.
Shepherd was a Director of Information Systems Engineering at the MITRE Corporation, a McLean, Virginia, nonprofit specializing in systems engineering and information technology. He made it his mission to help and immediately set about collecting donations from his coworkers at MITRE to subsidize the purchase of suits, shirts, ties, and accessories for these recovering veterans in need.
Word of the new program, dubbed “Suits for Vets,” spread throughout the company thanks in part to several mentions in the company’s internal newsletter, “MITRE Matters.” Soon collections were organized at company holiday parties and before Memorial and Veterans Day.
Such projects are not unusual at MITRE. The company always has encouraged employees to participate in civic and community affairs, grant-ing paid time off to its employees to support involvement in the community.
The money they collected was used to purchase $500 gift cards that the hospital administration distributed not only to the disabled veterans at both facilities, but also to visiting spouses and family members who often needed to attend events and did not pack suits or dresses, or could not afford them.
Men’s clothier Jos. A. Bank has been a vital partner from the very beginning and provides generous discounts. Boudi Hayek, manager of Jos. A. Bank’s Reston, Virginia, store, was instrumental in the program’s development and continued success. Most of the recipients are amputees who require a great deal of specialized tailoring because of the nature of their wounds.
“Even the salespeople have been willing to pitch in,” Lehowicz added. “Some forfeited their own sales commissions on the suits to provide additional accessories such as shoes and ties to the veterans.” Recently Bloomingdale’s has come on board to help women veterans at Walter Reed in need of clothing.
Shepherd died in 2005, but his work is carried on in his memory by several of his MITRE colleagues, including Theda Parrish and VVA Northern Virginia Chapter 227 member Chuck Harris.
Parrish served as a government civilian in Saigon from 1966-68. She understands that having the right clothing for job interviews is just one step in the complex transition to civilian life, but she contends it is a crucial one. “Tying yellow ribbons to a tree is fine, but these soldiers deserve so much more than that,” she said. “They need a chance to show what they can do once they leave the military.”
Harris, who served in Vietnam from 1968-69 with the 101st Airborne Division and in 1971 with the 1st Cavalry Division, developed a partnership with Chapter 227 in 2008 and serves as the chapter’s liaison for the campaign. The symbiosis has been extremely beneficial: The added manpower now allows for donations of used suits in addition to cash.
The chapter collects and stores the donated suits and also provides the all-important 501(c)19 status that allows contributions to be tax-deductible. The chapter’s administrative support enables 100 percent of all donated funds to go directly to the purchase of gift cards. “MITRE’s desire has always been to avoid having to implement a lengthy application process or require the soldiers to demonstrate their worthiness on paper,” Harris said.
In just a few short months, members of Chapter 227 have contributed almost $1,000 to the project and collected and donated over 250 “lightly used” suits. Chapter member Charles Klein arranged the donation of one hundred business suits from a local men’s store. “We take our pledge that ‘never again will one generation of veterans abandon another’ very seriously,” he said.
The philanthropic spirit of Suits for Vets is also spawning new projects within MITRE to benefit returning veterans. “We’d like to give them exposure to new technologies and help them develop other skills that are critical for today’s job seekers,” MITRE’s Rick Micker said. “Buying someone a suit is a one-time thing—teaching them how to interview for jobs and mentoring is the long-term goal.”
MITRE’s Veteran Employment Training Program, launched in 2008, was created to help severely wounded veterans gain new career skills. “There are a lot of opportunities in this company for vets who are getting out and starting to rebuild their lives,” said Steven Curry, a former U.S. Army sergeant who was severely wounded in Afghanistan and was the first trainee. He now works part-time at MITRE while attending college full-time. A second trainee is halfway through his year-long program at MITRE.
The Suits For Vets program has raised more than $35,000 and has helped clothe about seventy recovering veterans. Suits for Vets’ organizers look forward to helping many more veterans make successful transitions into the professional world as the need continues to grow with more and more wounded soldiers coming home.
“If we can take the burden of having to shop for business clothes off the veterans, there will be one less thing for them to have to worry about during their recovery,” Parrish said.
As one recipient expressed in a recent thank-you note, “Due to my injuries, I will be leaving the military and, thus, changing my life. The first step is recovery. The next step is an internship in Washington, D.C. [This] suit allows me to enter into this new lane with pride, a sense of style, and dignity. Thank you very much.”
Contributions to the Suits for Vets program may be made by check payable to VVA Chapter 227. The address is P.O. Box 5653, Arlington, VA 22205. Please indicate “Suits for Vets” on the memo line. The entire contribution goes toward the purchase of gift cards.
The chapter is a 501(c) 19 charity organization, and the contribution may be tax deductible under the IRS tax code. Used business attire is also accepted. Anyone wishing to contribute used suits in the Washington, D.C., area may contact Chuck Harris at Chuck_Harris@VVA227.org
The clothing should be dry-cleaned and presented on a hanger in a plastic bag. A label indicating the item’s size should be attached to the outside of the bag.