Inspired Soldiers Embody Legacy of Black History Month

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African American History Month has ended, and while the official celebration is over, our contributions to society don't end on any given particular day. Likewise, our African American service members continue to contribute and make history, even after they take off their uniforms for the last time.

Every day, we are still serving our nation and, in many cases, still leading the way to make our communities better. One story of continuing leadership, service, and sacrifice by our African American leaders is the AmeriCorps Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA) VetCorps.

A Leader Continues to Lead

Robert Velasco, II, the Acting Director for the Corporation for national and Community Service, speaks to the crowd at the swearing-in of the first class of AmeriCorps VetCorps members.

The CADCA is led by Army Gen. Arthur T. Dean, who was one of the highest-ranking African American soldiers when he retired in 1998 with the rank of Major General. During his 31 years in the military, Gen. Dean served around the world, saw combat in Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, and spent six years with the 82nd Airborne Division and the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, NC.

Immediately after retiring from the Army, Gen. Dean became the chairman and CEO of CADCA, one of the leading drug abuse prevention organizations in the world, representing the interests of more than 5,000 community anti-drug coalitions in the country.

CADCA's mission is a formative one. It trains local grassroots groups, known as community anti-drug coalitions, in effective community problem-solving strategies by teaching them how to assess their local substance abuse-related problems and develop a comprehensive plan to address them.

One large and looming issue was that of substance abuse among National Guard and Reserve members.

Deployment stresses can have a devastating impact on National Guard soldiers and their families due to disparities in services available to them. Unlike their active duty peers, National Guard members often do not benefit from services available on military bases, such as family support centers and counseling services.

According to the Department of Defense's Millennium Cohort Study, 22 percent of National Guard members were problem drinkers, 29 percent had financial problems, 12 percent reported feeling lonely, and 5 percent had suicidal thoughts.

This problem on the homefront was in need of a leader… enter Gen. Dean with a vision of community empowerment and service as a solution.

New Recruits for a New Team

Members of the audience participate in the AmeriCorps pledge at the swearing-in of the first ever class of VetCorps recruits in February, 2012.

In 2011, CADCA partnered with the National Guard Bureau (NGB) with a mission and a vision to improve the lives of returning Guardsmen and Reservists in combating substance abuse. They coined this initiative “VetCorps,” and the partnership was launched on Sept. 11, 2011, with the goal of improving the lives of Guardsmen in more than 27 states with the added people power of AmeriCorps members. VetCorps allows the use of existing NGB and CADCA infrastructure at the national, state, and local level to ensure effective alignment and use of resources to achieve the greatest results for those serving and being served.

In February, the first class of AmeriCorps members in the CADCA VetCorps were sworn in here in Washington DC, and among them was African American U.S. Navy veteran Kela Harris. Harris was inspired by other leaders she had encountered, as well as a common desire to continue her service here on the homefront.

Prior to joining the AmeriCorps program, Harris served on supply detail for a helicopter squadron in Mayport, FL. Harris continued her service after leaving the military by becoming a member of the City Year AmeriCorps program in Washington, DC.

She spent the duration of her City Year teaching life-saving information and being an activist in the HIV/AIDS community. Harris believes that VetCorps is a platform to bring military service members and their families the support and services they need, while helping fellow service members to answer the call to service in their communities.

Last month, in front of more than 2,000 people dedicated to serving their communities, Harris shared her story of seeing the challenges of deployment stress and lack of access to needed resources, and how AmeriCorps can help. You can hear her inspirational remarks, as well as the remarks of Gen. Dean, here.

African American History Month is over, but Gen. Dean's service continued, Kela Harris' service continued -- and so can yours. Learn how by visiting www.americorps.gov/.

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