Veteran Michael Fitzgerald candidly expresses his pain in a collection of original poetry.
With such titles as “Wish to be Seen,” “A Soul Wasted” and “Redemption,” his poems reveal the suffering of a Marine with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But Michael and his wife, Meaghan, also a veteran, are not ones to complain.
Instead, they are reaching out to help other vets.
The Janesville couple started the fledgling Veterans First Foundation, a Wisconsin-based, nonpartisan group to help veterans who are struggling.
The Fitzgeralds want to assist vets with a long list of things, including paying utilities, maintaining their homes and providing transportation, clothing and shoes.
They also view their foundation as “a one-stop shop,” where links on their website connect visitors to vital veteran resources.
Among the resources are people who can enroll vets in health care, mental health or substance-abuse programs, and homelessness programs through the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We are not trying to replace existing programs,” Michael said. “We want to help connect veterans with the right people. When I first got out of the military, I did not realize these people existed.”
They also understand the importance of human compassion and look forward to launching the veteran reading project.
Volunteers will read to vets who have mobility or transportation issues and bring them the joy of good books and companionship.
The Fitzgeralds hope to do all this by enlisting many volunteers, nonprofit partners and community leaders who also are passionate about helping veterans.
They believe Janesville will respond to their effort.
“This is a big veterans town,” Michael said. “People are very patriotic.”
So far, the Fitzgeralds have funded the nonprofit foundation with their own money.
Eventually, they hope to get funding through state grants and to be self-sufficient through donations. They want to host their first public fundraising walk/run this summer.
“Being a new charity, we are mostly unknown at the moment,” Michael said. “Our drive is to bring the whole community together through donations, volunteers and those vets we aim to help.”
Carla Vigue of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs was not familiar with Veterans First Foundation, but she said the VA is always “looking to find good partners in the community who can help us with our missions.”
John Solis, Rock County Veterans Services officer, echoed that sentiment.
He also is not familiar with the new foundation but hopes it will spread the word about the veterans services office.
“If someone comes into contact with a veteran, we certainly want that person to refer the veteran to us,” Solis said. “Being discharged from the military is step one. We need to sit down with a veteran to know what benefits the vet can apply for.”
Among other things, Solis helps vets file claims based on their military service, helps them with VA health care enrollment and puts them in touch with other programs.
He is happy to have another veteran resource.
“I get calls from people who need repairs around the house or who need a ramp at their house,” Solis said. “I see what kind of local resources we can put together. Anytime we can get another resource to tap into, that’s great.”
The Fitzgeralds embrace their new foundation at a time when they are raising four young children.
“Being a mom is the most important thing to me,” Meaghan said. But she is committed to helping others. She works part time as a receptionist in a dental office.
In addition, the Fitzgeralds have a military and first-responder clothing line, founded in 2017.
While in the Marines, Michael was a communications specialist with a top-secret security clearance. He was stationed at 29 Palms, California, and completed a deployment overseas.
Meaghan served as a combat medic at Fairfield Air Force Base in Washington, southwest of Spokane.
“I’ve always liked helping people in any way I can,” Meaghan said. “I feel veterans get overlooked. People say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ But as a vet, I know how lost you can feel.”
She described her shaky transition from military to civilian life.
“I had my family, but they don’t always understand,” Meaghan said. “I was lost for a while. You go from having command and structure to being a civilian. You are one person in this big world.”
Michael had a similar crisis.
“When you get out, you feel your identity has been stripped from you,” he explained. “You did your service, but you feel like you are starting over. It would be nice if there was a class to help people re-enter. No one tells you that maybe you should get counseling from the VA. There’s a lot the military doesn’t tell vets.”
He and Meaghan hope to bridge some of the uncertainty.
Michael described their goal simply:
“There should be no veteran in need.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.