Marvin Sakin was 70 years old, his days as a U.S. Army sergeant serving in Korea long past, when he walked into a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Baltimore. He was there to get help with his heart and blood pressure medicines from the government-run health care network that's supposed to help veterans like him.
Sakin walked out disgusted and determined. "They didn't treat us like vets," said Sakin, of Pikesville. "They treated us like they were doing us a favor."
He organized other vets he met at the center — a few from World War II, some from Vietnam — and met with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D, to talk about the need to make the VA more responsive to veterans' needs. Change was quick and positive, Sakin said. And a veterans advocate was born.
That was in 2000. Flash forward 10 years. Sakin, now a longtime AARP volunteer, teamed up with Rawle Andrews Jr., the state director for AARP Maryland, who wanted to enhance AARP's efforts on behalf of the state's nearly 500,000 veterans. The result was the creation this year of the Salute to Veterans Initiative, a program to help former military personnel find the medical and social services they need but have trouble accessing. The group held its first veterans' symposium in Baltimore in October.
About two-thirds of Maryland's veterans are over 50, a group traditionally served by AARP. Andrews and Sakin hope that by helping older veterans now they'll also pave the way for better communication with a new generation of military veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than 21,000 Maryland-based troops have been mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, including troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the governor's office.
"In my view, the AARP of today and tomorrow is going to look a lot different than the AARP of 25 years ago, particularly as it relates to veterans," Andrews said. "We need to be ready to receive that person who may be 35 or 45 right now, but who 20 years from now will be [eligible to be] a member and it will be, in my mind, too late for us to play catch up."
Rather than creating a new organization, the veterans initiative is working with existing groups like the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, the Yellow Ribbon Fund and the American Legion. Andrews said the veterans initiative is sponsoring its own events to make veterans aware of the benefits available to them — from health care and housing to education and employment — and helping them gain access. For information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The more people who can reach out to their constituents about veterans issues the better," said Cate Conroy, acting director of outreach and advocacy for the state Veterans Affairs office. "It certainly helps to better inform veterans about their benefits, but also makes people in general more aware of issues facing veterans."
The Salute to Veterans Initiative comes at a time when the federal government is renewing efforts to modernize the VA's massive health care network and other services for the nation's 25 million veterans.
Maryland is also preparing to play a greater role in veterans' health care. Bethesda Naval Hospital is being expanded to absorb the closing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, doubling the number of veterans it treats to about 1 million a year and adding 2,500 new employees.
"Everybody's coming to Bethesda, and we want to be ready for them," Andrews said. "We're in this for the long term because we want to be true partners with the veterans in Maryland."
Congress approved a new GI Bill in 2008 to provide veterans with greater educational opportunities, expanded health care services and rules to help veterans previously denied benefits because of their income levels.
Bob Kemper is the assistant managing editor of the Washington Examiner.