Jack Chirrick, Executive Director, Operation Homefront-California
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Military families here in San Diego have endured a lot in the past decade. Multiple deployments have taken a toll not only on military personnel but on their spouses, children, and even extended families. U.S. armed services try to take care of their own military families, but there's a lot that slips through the cracks, and that's where Operation Homefront hopes to step in. They are holding an open house later today at Mira Mar mall. And my guest, Jack Chirrick is Executive Director of Operation Homefront.
CHIRRICK: Thank you for having me here. It's not just California, it's a national organization. It did start here in California in 2002. We provide emergency services primarily to military families and wounded warriors. So for instance if a family has a service member deployed and the spouse is there by herself with two or three kid, she's trying to get them to daycare to work, and all of a sudden the car breaks down. In a lot of these cases, the finances are very slim. So where do they go? We find that there are inner service agencies as you stated that actually will help, but sometimes that's not even enough. What we do is work with them to match up with a service provider, fixing a car, and write a grant to the service provider to get that car fixed so the spouse can get the kids to school, get to work on time, and everything is okay. So we really try to be that family outside of their family, become that extended family to support them whenever they're in need. Negligence to that, we support several morale programs throughout the year.
CAVANAUGH: Let me stop you there. This is a nonprofit organization. Where does your money come from? Exclusively donations? Or other sources as well?
CHIRRICK: No, everything that we get is due to the generosity of our donors. That comes from various places, from sponsorships from corporations that are in America. Is it also comes from various foundations set up to support nonprofits. And then of course individual giving. We really -- that's where we see a great deal of funding coming in, just the American people themselves loving their military and wanting to do what they can to support them in their time of need.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I suppose a lot of people might ask, doesn't the military take care of military families?
CHIRRICK: They do. Obviously our military families have a salary. But I was up at Fort Irwin yesterday, and I was talking with their warrior transition unit, the group that does wounded warrior transition back to the civilian workforce. And they've got a family there that has seven children. The service member is three pay grades up for the lowest pay grade and probably qualifies for food stamps. But the government can only afford to pay a certain salary. So in these circumstances, who is there to help? So organizations like Operation Homefront step in and say we're here to meet these needs to, take care of these service members. And it's not really us, we're doing it on behalf of the American people. That's really what it boils down to. We really believe in this cause, and clearly our donors do as well. It really is great that there's that pairing between us and the donors that we can provide services to these families on behalf of them.
CAVANAUGH: How do families that need help, extra help here and there or guidance in how to do things, how do they contact your organization? Is it through military services or can they just come to you on their own volition?
CHIRRICK: Both. Fortunately we spend a lot of time doing a lot of outreach in the military community. That's what I was doing yesterday, and I also did that at the logistics base in Barstow, meeting with the commanders, letting them know what we do and how we do it. We work with those groups so the information gets down to the deck plate level. If the leadership sees one of their sailors, marines have a need, they refer them to us. But we also work with organizations like 211 where somebody can pick up the phone and dial and say this is my situation, I need help. And I'll find the right organization to match them up with. And in addition to that, anybody can go to our website, operationhomefront.net/California. Or just go to the website and put in your Zip Code.
CAVANAUGH: You made the point, I've been talking about military families, but more and more troops are returning home here to San Diego. What kind of difficulties are they facing?
CHIRRICK: What we see a lot of of course is the wounded, the ill, the injured that are coming through. And in many cases, these individuals signed up for a 20, 30-year career. Now they're very young, they got sent to Iraq or Afghanistan because that's the group that we work with. And due to an IED, they're now injured and being processed out of the military because they're no longer capable of serving their country as they wanted to. So they're sitting there, let's say, as an example, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury, silent injuries, and now they're being processed out of the military and transitioning back to the civilian workforce. They have a couple of kids, a spouse, the spouse is driving them around to appointments so she loses her job. So now they come to us because they're in financial straits, and he's help us. We have three operations throughout the United States, one in Oceanside. And we'll bring them to this apartment complex where we have 9units, and we'll pay all of their rent, utilities, etc, and help them make that transition. Their pay is going from what it was to being a very small percentage based upon the disability.
CAVANAUGH: And we actually did a show recently about the very long time that returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are waiting for the disability assistance from the VA. Is that something that your organization is also see something
CHIRRICK: It happens. I think the VA is doing a tremendous job now. I think it's just sheer numbers. There's a lot of individuals that are coming back that need assistance in some capacity or another. And because of that, you're going to see a bit of delay. We ourselves, we just recently expanded the services to serve all military veterans that are wounded or injured back to 911. Originally, it was just two years after they got out of the service. When we did that, we saw a huge influx of cans for support. It's just the same thing with the VA, when the opportunity is there, there's going to be a lot more that needs to be done, and they're going to have to work through it. But it's not the veterans' administration of yesterday. They've made a lot of improvements and they're doing a lot of great things.
CAVANAUGH: So when a vet and his or her family come to live at Operation Homefront village, how long can they say?
CHIRRICK: Between 6-18 months. We had 1case where it was 22. So it's variable. In some cases, weave able to transition them into our homes on the homefront program, which is permanent housing. And through our partnerships can Chase, bank of America, Wells Fargo, they provided us homes, and they basically will pay the property tax on the home and homeowner association fee, and we'll work with them for 1-2 years. After that, we give the home over to them and it becomes their home. We take it beyond that where we can. In many cases, those individuals don't necessarily need that. And they work on transitioning back to the civilian workforce, and they do get jobs. Walmart just said they were going to offer 100,000 jobs to military service members out of the service. These are all other resources that we can direct them to. That's the beauty of what's happening in America today, it's truly a partnership of all of us, it's a collaboration of America to take care of our service members which is really wonderful when you think about it.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have perhaps a story of a family that you've helped that you can share that maybe exemplifies what Operation Homefront offers?
CHIRRICK: Sure, yeah. There's one family in particular. This one gentleman returned from Afghanistan after, you know, being hit with an IED blast, lost two legs and an arm. And he came home to his wife and three kids. In addition to the amputations, suffering traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress. The issue was too much for the spouse. She left. She couldn't take it, unfortunately. And left him with the kids too. So this individual was sitting there, you know, going through this process, being pushed out of the service and didn't really have any place to go, didn't have a future, was literally on his last leg. And when we found him, of course he came to us because he needed financial assistance. And we moved them into the village with the family and eventually moved them into our homes on the homefront program. These are the dire cases that we're talking about that really need the support. And then again, of course, there's the silent injuries as well. We had a circumstance where this one gentleman came back and they were living in a hotel room, and they had maybe two days left of finances. But the family was so struggling with his posttraumatic stress, the kids were actually afraid of this man, as was his spouse. Once we got him into our vision, transitioned into the program, got him help with counseling everything and, it just brought that family unit back together. And you saw that with the kids. They were, like, you know, my dad's back! That was the great thing of what we were able to do, excuse me, we were able to really alleviate some of the stress off of that family financially that allowed them to focus on what was going on with them as a family unit, not only just the service member as an individual. And then of course work on those things, and then come back together as a family. Sometimes that's the hardship as we all get caught up with our daily lives of what's going on, and now here's this service member with that additional stressor. And that's really what they should be focusing on, the PTSD or whatever, and they're not able to do that. So we can come in, alleviate some of that, and get them to focus on what's important.
CAVANAUGH: I hear these stories, and they're really disturbing and profound. It also makes me think isn't the military doing enough for military families?
CHIRRICK: The sequestration that's coming up is a clear example. There's only so much money that the government has to support the services that it does. Clearly they provide what they can. But you're talking preservice, postservice environments in the case of these injured service members. The system that we have in place in our country to take care of them is the veterans' administration. It is that stipend that they receive for that disability and the injuries they sustained in service to our country. So they do what they can, the service and the support is there, but it's limited. What's the next step? Do we just leave our service members to fend for themselves after they supported all of us? We say no. We believe they've earned our support, our help based upon the service they did, and we're going to step in there and provide that with the help of our donors.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like you're also making the case that the larger community not just your organization, but the community as well, the nation as well owes a debt of gratitude to make sure the people returning from these wars are not left destitute, do have resources to be able to restart their lives.
CHIRRICK: I wouldn't want to speak on behalf of anybody else. Obviously is this the beauty of America, freedom of speech, freedom of belief. I think that's so fantastic. But we personally believe as an organization as the people within the organization more importantry that it is an obligation. Of course we would want as much of America supporting that idea as they can, and a lot of them do. And that's the great thing about it. Culturally, we are so aware of what our service members are doing on our behalf that people are -- when they hear about what's going on, they want to come out, they want to get involved, they want to help us, and that can come at a number of levels. Donations are always welcome, we appreciate that in terms of finances so that we can provide those services. But it's also things like baby items, that we can help new families with or just volunteer time. That helps too. There are so many ways for people to get involved. I would invite everyone in America to get involved. And it doesn't just have to be with Operation Homefront. There's lots of great organizations out there that are focused on helping our military families and service members. We will take any help that we can get, but the idea is to get involved. I do think that our service members have done a lot for us. And we should bring them into our community and welcome them back for all that they've done.
CAVANAUGH: I started out this conversation talking about the open house that you're having today. Tell us a little bit. What will people find when they visit this open house?
CHIRRICK: Well, we've got a new field office here in California that we just opened. It's allowed us to bring our office and warehouse space together. So we're inviting the community to come in, we're bringing in some military families themselves so they can see what we have to offer in terms of our baby warehouse, things that they can come in and seek assistance for. We've also gone around and posted a lot of facts in our spaces about what's going on in our military community right you. Like 13% of of the military population is here in California. And that's actually the largest presence of military personnel across the United States. If there's going to be a need, a huge portion of that need is going to be here in California where we also have one of the highest costs of living. It's little things like that. 10% of the veterans' population. But the idea really is to just kind of bring the families in so they're aware of our services, and then bring the community in so they can see what the reality is and what's going on, and how they can get involved with that if they choose to.
CAVANAUGH: The open house is happening this evening in the Mira Mar mall in Mira Mesa from 5:00 to 7:00PM. Go to Operation Homefront.net, and just type in your Zip Code; is that right?
CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much for coming in.
CHIRRICK: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.