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Editorial: Veterans Education Project turns 30

Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.

Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst. Purchase photo reprints »

The Veteran Education Project of Amherst celebrated a milestone Thursday: 30 years of honoring war veterans in a powerful way, by hearing them out. The group encourages men and women who have been to battle to tell their stories, from the heart, in classrooms and other local venues.

The idea is to show others, particularly young people, what war is really like.

Aside from giving the community an appreciation for what they have faced, these men and women get to see that their sacrifices really do matter at home. Program Director Susan Leary said she’s seen struggling veterans change their lives after observing the impact their stories have on their listeners. Describing an experience out loud, before a group, can change the teller’s fear or shame to a sense of value and historical importance, she said. The listeners pay homage in a way that goes deeper than a parade or ceremony can, Leary said.

We think she is right. And what better day than Veterans Day is there to take note of the group’s achievement?

This praiseworthy effort started in 1982 by a group of Vietnam-era veterans. For the VEP, it has always been about the human experience first. Though many involved are anti-war, the politics are secondary. The group does not promote an agenda from either the left or the right, but organizers of the group believe if people come to understand the stakes of war, they can make more informed decisions about it. Young men and women considering risking their lives on distant battlefields should have an understanding of what could happen to them physically and mentally. And those who with no military plans have something to gain from a connection with someone who has been through war.

These days the nonprofit, which has a $100,000 annual budget funded by donors and foundation grants, works with about 30 veterans who give 100 talks a year.

Their work has grown to include a support group for military families and the presentations have been expanded to groups of clergy, social workers, physicians and therapists. The VEP also has sent veterans into youth detention centers to describe the consequences of violence and is now working with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan to help vets who have gotten into trouble with the law. Speakers at the group’s anniversary celebration Thursday included veterans and teachers whose classrooms they have visited.

Rob Wilson, the group’s executive director, who has been with the project for 20 years (12 in his current role), is not a veteran himself but started out as a teacher. He said the idea that veterans have a message to convey excited him as an educator and he wanted to help in that effort. It has turned into a long career for him. Leary was first a geologist, but wanted a job that had more meaning for her. Part of her inspiration for joining VEP, she said, was her father, who had been in the U.S. Navy just before the Vietnam War but never wanted to talk about his military service.

As it turned out, Leary’s second day on the job was Sept. 11, 2001, an event that changed the group’s focus. Where its concentration had been on past wars, current events now took a prominent role in its efforts and led to the work with military families through Military Families Connect.

Wilson has announced that he intends to step down at the end of the year and hand the reins to Leary. We think he has distinguished himself well in his role as an advocate for veterans and we are confident that Leary, who has worked shoulder to shoulder with him, will carry on the outstanding work this group has done.

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