Two men decades apart in age and living in opposite corners of the country wouldn’t typically become friends. But, thanks to a volunteer program aimed at combating social isolation within the veteran community, they’ve forged a meaningful connection.
The program, Veteran Friendly Voice, spearheaded by AARP and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), brings together trained volunteers with veterans over a video call, providing the opportunity to connect and have a conversation. The calls occur at least once a week over a three-month period and last for a minimum of 30 minutes apiece.
“Having someone to call and see you adds more power to the connection,” said Chauncy Rozier, a VA recreation therapist. “Until COVID-19 hit us, I think the idea of a phone call or just to see someone had lost its purpose. Now, coming out of COVID, people are more aware that it feels so good to be seen and heard and that they aren’t forgotten.”
One of the program’s first pairings was between retired U.S. Army Spc. Brent Garlic, 43, from Atlanta, and Paul Frost, a 78-year-old program volunteer and veteran from Edmonds, Washington.
“On paper, it would seem like it wouldn’t be the most ideal connection. But you never look at it that way,” said Garlic. “We both wanted to work and get the most out of it. And we did. And we still do.”
For his part, Frost said, “You’re always intimidated when you try and establish that first rapport. But when I called Brent, I was pretty amazed. We both had an affinity for racing and football.”
Beginning with sports, their conversations evolved to encompass discussions about relationships, money, career plans and other important life topics.
“I can’t say that there’s any one topic that has grabbed us and stayed with us,” said Frost. “But we’ve expanded into just, ‘Hey, how’s life?’ It’s worked out great for both of us.”
Despite completing the three-month period outlined by the program, the two still call each other every couple of weeks to talk.
Paths to the Veteran Voice Program
Garlic joined the military in 1998 as an armor crewman, operating tanks and serving a tour in Bosnia. His military career came to an end when he was involved in a major vehicle accident after a fuel truck lost control and collided with him. Garlic was left severely injured and using a wheelchair.
Before the incident, Garlic had been a talented athlete with aspirations of becoming a professional basketball player. “It was rough for about five years, until I figured out what the adaptive world had to offer,” he said. “Prior to that, I was just trying to adapt the hard way — on my own, no outside influence from anyone who knew better. No sports, no nothing.”
He eventually learned about the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which offers a nationally ranked rehabilitation program and, most important for Garlic, adaptive sports such as basketball. Since enrolling in the Shepherd program, he has gone on to compete in several sports at the Invictus Games, an international sporting event for wounded and injured service members, and maintains a very active lifestyle.
He learned about the Veteran Friendly Voice program from a VA recreational therapist who suggested that Garlic try it “just to see what happens.”
“I was open to it. And that’s what got me introduced to Paul,” he said. “I thought it was one of those things where you won’t know where you are until you get around people who could hold a mirror up to your face and let you see where and what you are.”
Frost was already active in volunteering with AARP and other organizations when he learned about the new program, which piqued his interest. A former field artillery captain in the Army himself, Frost agreed to help out.
Despite an abundance of volunteer experience, Frost said that nothing else has “come close to the rewards that I get out of this. It’s amazing how you can impact someone one-on-one. I gain as much from it as my veterans do.”
Another veteran whom Frost is working with is bedridden in a nursing home after losing his wife to pancreatic cancer several years ago. “I can just tell he gets really excited about the call,” said Frost.
How to get involved
Volunteers may reside anywhere in the U.S. and must have the following qualifications:
- Strong interpersonal communication skills
- Computer or tablet with a stable Internet connection
- Must pass a fingerprint and background check
- Comfortable with technology and navigating email and the Internet
- Military veteran preferred
- Experience with call center management platforms a plus
To apply or learn more about volunteering for the Veteran Friendly Voice program, click here.
Participating Veterans must be referred by a VA doctor, therapist, nurse, chaplain or social worker. Although so far the program is available only from the VA medical centers in Atlanta and New Haven, Connecticut, the program hopes to soon include Nashville and the Bronx, with the goal of expanding nationwide and incorporating video chats for military caregivers.
Veterans who don’t have the proper device to conduct a video call may be given one as a donation.
“Brain health is one of the greatest among the five best-needed components of life,” said the VA’s Rozier. “The physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual components of life are all very important and play key roles in quality of life.”
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.