Local veterans build own support system for fellow ex-servicemen

When Michael Aaron, former Marine sergeant and combat veteran OIF/OEF, returned to Lebanon in June 2007 from military service, it took him several years to find his place in civilian life.

“After I came home, there was not really a whole lot in this area for guys like me; young, just getting back from those conflicts,” Aaron said. 

He went to the American Legion and VFW, and tried going to school and holding down jobs, but nothing fit right for him, he said. Meanwhile, he met other vets going through the same thing.

“We all kind of asked the same questions, what kinds of things are out there for us locally? There was nothing really around here.”

In 2014, Aaron found his role by starting Link Up Vets. The nonprofit based in Lebanon serves as a network for veterans throughout western Oregon who need to engage with others and create purpose and meaning in life, according to its website.

Many veterans need an outlet, resources and brotherhood, Aaron said, and he knows well enough how much that kind of community is needed. He spent five years in the Marine Corps, serving two tours each in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It was rough. It was one of those experiences you never want to happen again, but at the same time, you do,” Aaron said. “It was terrible, but good at the same time. What I mean by that is the brotherhood that you have with your other service members. You miss that camaraderie. Of course, I don’t miss war or any of that, but I miss my brothers.”

Link up Vets serves veterans in three main capacities: outdoor adventure, community outreach, and service dog provision and training.

Outdoor Adventure

Through hiking, hunting, fishing, shooting competitions, relay runs and other activities, veteran involvement in LUV has increased in the last four years.

“It started picking up steam really quick,” Aaron said.

He calls it “recreational therapy,” an opportunity to take a break from daily stresses and road blocks of life, and get together with other vets who may or may not share with each other their combat experiences.

When LUV first started, Aaron admits he didn’t have much of a game plan, but he already saw it take shape during their first event, a 60-mile relay run from Philomath to Newport. Every service except the Air Force was represented, with people from different backgrounds and experiences.

They started sharing stories and exchanging phone numbers, he said.

“I sat back and I watched and I go, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ It gives a forum to kind of open up and share whatever you want. And from there it just progressed.”

Events through LUV inspired one vet to buy a boat, and now he invites other veterans to go fishing with him, including residents of Lebanon’s Veterans Home, Aaron said.

“It’s not necessarily just about the organization; this spreads throughout,” he said. “It’s something that gives other people ambition to go do those kinds of things instead of just sit around and wallow.”

Community Outreach

After a serious injury forced Jason Gardner to retire from the Army in 2014, he moved to Oregon and later heard about LUV. Aaron and his uncle were operating the nonprofit together at the time, but Gardner’s insistence on participating helped LUV expand to more community outreach opportunities.

“The disabled veteran property clean-up stuff really took off after that, because now we had more people to help plan these out,” Aaron said.

Community outreach includes help for homeless veterans; various advocate work for veterans; military fort, camp and cemetery plot cleanups; and disabled vet home property cleanup.

“We’ll take care of veterans that can’t take care of their own properties,” said Gardner, LUV’s vice chair. “We go out there and cut down trees, tear out blackberry bushes. We do everything we can to help anybody.”

Helping other veterans and seeing their appreciation is all Gardner needs to feel accomplished. He was raised to believe that instead of complaining about the community, one should work with it to solve its  problems, he said.

“Giving back and helping makes you feel good,” Gardner said. “It makes the whole group of Link Up Vets closer because we’re actually giving and working toward the goal of helping instead of just floundering off and not doing anything.”

Service dogs

The idea for training and providing service dogs to veterans came through dog trainer Aaron Hand, an advocate for veterans and board member on LUV. Hand trained a service dog for Aaron, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.

“We started talking and, next thing, we got going with this,” Hand said. “We train for everything from emotional support all the way through full service dogs.”

Depending on each veteran’s need, the dogs can be trained to distract the owner before anxiety sets in, wake them up during a nightmare, alert when the phone rings or someone’s at the door, and more.

Hand said he’s seen improvement in Aaron’s life after the dog went home with him.

Crowded areas cause “triggering moments” for Aaron. After about 10 or 15 minutes, his mind would be overwhelmed by perceived threats, be it from the way a person looks, the way a person is looking at him, the fear of what’s around the corner, the pathway being blocked, and such like that, Aaron said.

His service dog, Scout, a golden retriever, allows Aaron to be in a store for as long as an hour or more, he said. 

“He gives me something to focus on. I can go down and pet him, and it gets my mind off of whatever that issue is, because obviously there’s no real threat; it’s just that my mind thinks that. It’s priceless how much just that simple thing can do.”

Two acres of land have recently been donated to LUV for a place to kennel and train the dogs.

Crisis housing

While Aaron coordinates several projects through LUV, another one he’d like to put together some day is a temporary safe house for veterans in crisis.

About three-quarters of the vets he’s come into contact with have gotten some form of help during crisis in their lifetime, and every one of them has talked about suicide, including himself, Aaron said.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are an average of 20 veteran suicides a day in the nation.

“I won’t say it’s gotten easier, but it’s gotten more manageable through getting help,” Aaron said of himself. 

He went through years of seeking help, and finds LUV to be a successful network of brotherhood to rely on in difficult times, and now he tries to help other veterans who reach out in need.

One time, Aaron drove up and down the state with a veteran in need, looking for a crisis clinic that would take him that day. He eventually found someone who got him into a clinic at the VA in White City, outside of Medford. 

Through his experience, Aaron learned the state of Oregon no longer has any emergency intake place for veterans to go during the moment of crisis. To get into a program, they might have to have a referral and there’s a long waiting process.

Establishing a same-day intake clinic is one of the biggest fights Aaron has been on, he said. He’s trying to figure out whose door he needs to knock down to get that changed.

In fact, Aaron believes White City VA used to accept veterans same-day, but the program has changed. Now they just tell him to call a hotline.

“That’s something that I’ve written letters to congressmen about, trying to get this whole thing changed because I can’t really see why that’s a thing,” he said.

Until that happens, Aaron would like to have property where vets in crisis could stay until help can be established.

Funding for LUV events and materials comes through donations, but largely through their annual golf tournament, sponsored by Game Time Sports Bar and Grill, Aaron said.

Veterans who wish to participate in any LUV event, or advocates of veterans who want to help, may contact Michael Aaron. While money, Lowe’s or Home Depot gift cards, and yard clean up tools are acceptable, “volunteer hours are priceless,” he said.

For veterans who struggle with anxiety and depression, Aaron has one thing to say.

“A huge part is just showing up. Just show up and I guarantee you’ll have a good time; it will change all that anxiety and stuff.”

For more information about Link Up Vets, visit LinkUpVets.org, or contact Michael Aaron at (541) 905-3138.