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Honor Vet: Winning the War at Home

Ridgewood's Jesse Canella is the founder of Honor Vet, a non-profit that aims to become the one-stop-shop resource for anything U.S. veterans need.

There's no shortage of chatter from pundits, columnists, talk radio spitters, neighbors and friends about the U.S. combat withdrawal from Iraq. A divisive issue seemingly with far more questions than answers, you won't have trouble finding an opinion on what can be done to win the war abroad.

But there's another war. It's behind the curtains of U.S. homes, seen at businesses, unemployment lines, roadways, hospitals, VFW's and on your block. It's the war not seen and not heard–there are few columnists, pundits and the like shouting above one another on this conflict.

It's the war returning servicemen and women face as they struggle to re-adjust to life in the states. Many are beset by depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse problems, lack of economic opportunity, anxiety, injuries, and assorted family issues.

But Ridgewood's Jesse Canella, 24, a former Marine who left the service in summer of 2008 and was given disability status due to back injuries and hearing loss, believes this is a war that is imminently winnable, and he's spearheading a complex, comprehensive non-profit.

Honor Vet, he says, will provide the services needed for returning veterans to readjust and thrive in a home environment that is oddly foreign.

Canella's seen the horrors of war, witnessed the death of friends and returned to find a home he could not find familiarity with. And he's not the only one.

"Right now there's a large gap between the the issue and the help," Canella said.

"I came home from the Marines after four years in Iraq. I lost some friends and I came home...and as happy as I was to be home with my family, I felt there was a void that I was missing. I couldn't quite find what it was," he said.

After growing depressed and having trouble adjusting to life or finding any sustained happiness, Cannela said he realized just what that void was.

"I realized that the void was not being around like-minded people who had seen war, who had suffered loss – people I could relate to. I felt lost in myself and part of that was not being able to interact with people who had gone through what I was going through."

"Right now there is no one consolidated community where if you're a veteran you can talk to other vets going through the same issues, find a medical professional to give you some advice and answer direct questions, a place where you can learn how to craft a resume, a place where you can find all of the information you'd need on benefits or health options from the VA [Veterans Affairs]."

"It's not out there, but we're going to fill the void," Canella, a Ridgewood High School graduate said.

"We want to be the next generation community for veterans."

Filling the Void, Building Trust

To fill this void, Canella and his team have already begun compiling resources, are recruiting a network of professionals to provide advice and professional services for veterans, and are in the process of integrating innovative peer-to-peer technology so Honor Vet can become a digital forum to meet the challenges veterans are facing in the 21st century.

But don't be fooled, this is not a low-budget, no-name operation with more bark than bite. Canella is serious and that's immediately clear when you see the names involved in the project.

The names include Vice President Jimmy McCain (yes, son of Senator John McCain; he's a friend of Canella's from their time together in 1st Company, 1st Marines); COO Richard Moore, a former executive at Twitter who runs tech start-up Odeo; philanthropist Cindy McCain; Captain Brian Von Kraus, a Silver Star recipient of the Marines; and Dr. Sharad Wagle, one of the leading psychiatrists in the nation based in Teaneck.

The first thing that needs to be done, says Canella, is to have a system in place where Honor Vet can verify that the veterans using the site are in fact veterans.

"We'll be having members fax us their DD214 (source documents verfying their status as servicemen and women) to make sure we can provide a safe and trusted environment," Cannela said.

"Unless people feel comfortable that the person they're speaking to on the other end is actually a veteran, we can't do what we want to do. It's critical that we authenticate members. There needs to be a built-in trust."

Once that trust is established and veterans are signed onto the site (which is free to use), Canella says there are a few key core focuses Honor Vet will provide.

Professional Services

One of the pillars of Honor Vet's foundation is in their offering of professional services, Canella says. While returning veterans are often highly skilled, highly disciplined individuals, too many feel they don't have specific skills tailored to today's modern workforce.

But nothing could be further from the truth, Professor Mike Haynie of Syracuse University says. Haynie, head of the EBV program, an entrepreneurial business venture program for disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (a program Canella attended earlier this summer), believes the difficulty is in that employers often don't know how translate military related knowledge, skill and experiences to a civilian work role. Veterans, similarly, have difficulty communicating the skills they have to prospective employers.

"For example, they see that a veteran was a 'tank operator' in the military, and struggle with how that skill translates to a civilian role. The reality is, however, that if they were to dig deeper –or if we did a better job educating them–they'd understand that a modern-day tank driver actually has very advanced training and practical knowledge in hydraulics systems, radar systems, and electronics – highly desirable skills in the modern workplace."

Further, the leadership experience that military members receive, at a very young age, is invaluable in any work context."

On the veteran side, Haynie said many do not effectively communicate the fact that they have these advanced skills in job interviews, or on resumes, so the issue is compounded, leading to a disproportionately high percentage of veterans out of work.

Canella says by reaching out to career coaches and individuals who can lead workshops, they can help with the jobless rate.

"We're working right now with career coaches," he says.

"We're going to do things in phases. We're going to integrate them into the website. Eventually, career coaches can do video conferencing with veterans or a veteran can one-on-one chat with them," he says.

"We don't want to generalize answers. We want direct, personal answers. It should be catered to each individual as best we can. Obviously as we grow we'll be able to do a better and better job of that."

Of all the ideas Haynie has seen run through his entrepreneurial program at Syracuse–which features over 300 graduates since 2007, many of which now are running businesses with seven-figure revenues–he said Jesse's is certainly on target.

"For many veterans, leaving the military–especially in the face of a combat injury or trauma–makes for a real sense of hopelessness and isolation. They go from being part of an organization where their very identity was tied up in 'being a Marine' to no longer 'being a Marine.'

"Jesse's concept is positioned to ease that transition."

When the full website lauches, likely by January, Canella says the professional services section will be operational.

Warm Services

Unquestionably, veterans have had struggles in translating their practical, tangible skills into work, but many have the added difficulty of just generally adjusting to life back home, a life they hadn't seen for years, one where they're given almost too much freedom, where discipline they'd been so accustomed to vanishes. Not all can adjust, Canella says.

Haynie agrees, but believes Honor Vet's platform can make a big dent in combatting that issue.

"The power of Jesse's idea is in the peer-to-peer approach he is taking with regard to services positioned to help veterans effectively make the transition from military to civilian life. Often veterans struggle with seeking assistance from others that have not 'walked in their shoes.'"

On top of that, large numbers of veterans are also suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, marital and familial problems. Suicide rates hit an all-time high in the army this past June, diagnosed mental disorders are increasing ten-fold and the only places veterans often go is the VA, Canella says. That's if they go at all.

Dr. Sharad Wagle, who directs the Warm Services program at Honor Vet has seen it first-hand. Wagley, a psychiatrist and head of behavioral health at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, says it boils down to simple pride.

"Most men are reluctant to seek psychiatric help," Wagle says.

"The tougher you are, the less you are going to be willing to say you need help."

But that's changing, he says.

"So many vets are now reaching out and talking to their brethren saying, 'I've gotten help and so should you.'"

Wagle and the other members of the Honor Vet team are currently reaching out to local chapters of the American Psychiatric Association to find volunteers to speak with veterans, either through a video chat or instant messaging or on the phone, Canella says.

Doctors, all of whom would be licensed and board-certified, will provide advice and counsel but will not be writing prescriptions, Wagle says. The guidelines of the program decree that each professional volunteer will give one hour of their time a day and the program would run 24-hours a day.

Wagle says that he thinks the idea can be a very successful one, and that many vets now are seeking counsel outside of the VA.

"I can say more people come to a private phsyician or practice because they say there are too many people, too many patients at the VA. They'd like to speak with a private physician," he said, but also acknowledged that it's still a challenge for most and expressed that by providing this service, some measure of progress can be made in providing some discernable help many aren't receiving.

"Every day for the past so many years we hear about veterans who are dying for our freedom and our country," the psychiatrist said.

"This is a small way of giving back something."

The technology platform

The engine that runs it all is the technology provided for by COO Dick Moore. A former executive at Twitter, Moore runs Odeo, a peer-to-peer video software networking system. His company has already worked with American Express and other big name corporations to provide technology support, but Moore, a family friend of the Canellas, says he's particularly honored to be a part of Honor Vet.

"I have a deep, profound respect for those who serve our country. Jesse's vision and passion really struck me," he said.

With Odeo, Moore and Canella will be phasing various stages of their programs into the website. Eventually, Canella says he hopes they'll be able to provide families and supporters to easy communicate through video with servicemen and women abroad through video chats, in addition to whatever falls under the warm services and professional services umbrella.

"People today communicate digitally," Canella says, pointing out that 16.7 million of the 22.6 million living veterans use the internet, and most use it to communicate with friends and family members across the country.

"We're leveraging the culture and communication methods people are using and providing an avenue for them to get the help they really need."

We're not trying to shut down down the American Legion or the VFW halls–we're just trying to supplement what's already out there but through the channels people are already using."

Veterans need 'unconditional support'

While Honor Vet has huge aspirations–some might even say unrealistic ones–Canella says they're not a powerhouse financially. In fact, they're still relying on small donations to keep operations rolling. Currently, all people working at Honor Vet have other full-time jobs and are working at Honor Vet on a volunteer basis. Canella himself says he works pretty much every second of every hour at no salary.

"We need $50,000 to get the website fully operational and running," Canella says.

"Any amount of money you can give, whether it be $5 or $50,000, it would help immensely. We're looking for donations to provide the best practices to give the veterans of this country every opportunity they need and every opportunity they deserve."

Canella continued, pointing to the speech he'd prepared for Memorial Day, where he spoke to residents of the village and asked residents to remember the sacrifice given by the men and women of the armed forces. They fight wars on both sides, he says but without resources, neither front can be won. While Canella says he can't control what happens abroad, with help he can defeat the enemy that lurks on our streets, at our businesses and in our homes.

An excerpt from his speech:

"These are the men and women who leave everything behind them at home to fight for us and our freedom. These are the men and women who kiss their children and families' good bye knowing it may be their last, so that we can safely stay at home with ours.

Our military forces are made up 100% by volunteers. I ask everyone today to remember that we proudly choose to fight for this country, and I stand here in front of you today as a very proud American and U.S. Marine. All of our service members need your support unconditionally."

If you'd like to make a donation to Honor Vet, you can do so at their website.

Thomas K .Ohmart June 13, 2011 at 11:18 PM
Great article James. I am very excited about this organization. It's a diamond in the rough. My father-in-law was a vet and many of the young men I have coached in high school are returning from active duty. These people that have given so much, deserve so much more from us. My wife and I are going to the fund-raiser in California. We hope they raise the funds necessary to polish this stone into a beautiful jewel. TKO:)

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