A White Plains man used to attend National Association for Black Veterans meetings in Washington before he had an idea to branch out.
“Instead of being in the D.C. area, let me come down to Southern Maryland,” Mike Moses, the state commander for the association’s Maryland branch, remembered thinking.
On April 25, 2013, the Southern Maryland charter chapter was born.
Members of the National Association for Black Veterans, or NABVets, want to help other Southern Maryland veterans receive the assistance and benefits they deserve.
Why they joined
Kabir Tompkins, a Waldorf resident, said he’s been involved with a number of veteran organizations over the years and recalled being overlooked because of his physical appearance.
“While I was sitting with my name tag they skipped over me because they assumed I’m not a veteran,” the 43-year-old said, adding that he looked young and did not appear physically handicapped.
Veteran Affairs “purpose isn’t the same as NABVets,” the Army veteran said. “When NABVets talks about doing something — they do it.”
Tompkins often informally recruits veterans who could benefit from NABVets services. For example, if he sees someone at the ATM with a USAA bank card or a veteran hat, he said he thanks them for their service, starts a conversation and asks about their disability status. He also gives his card to his therapist so she can pass them out to her clients.
The former military sniper noted NABVets also meets with Charles County and state lawmakers to get things done. “It makes you want to be a part of something,” he added.
Omyni Harrell, a vice commander in the NABVets Southern Maryland chapter who served in the military from 1994 to 2013, said she’s a cancer survivor, 90% disabled and had a hysterectomy. Through NABVets, Harrell said she can see veterans who look like her and help one another out.
“We love what we do,” she said. “They’re not just my fellow veterans, they’re my band of brothers.”
Harrell said it can be frustrating with other veteran organizations, adding they seem to have an ulterior motive.
“We want to listen to people who have veteran concerns and advocate for those concerns,” she said. “We have men like Kabir who want to talk, who wants to listen.”
After the military
Tompkins was enlisted from 1994 to 1998 and from 2004 to 2008. He remembers the day his military service came to an end.
“November 14, 2008,” he recalls. “It was a Friday.” He remembers driving to Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County and entering military retirement.
“That was it. I was out of the military,” Tompkins said.
Harrell said there isn’t enough conversation about transitioning out of the military and re-socializing into the civilian sector. She remembers her struggles with transitioning out because she was not given the information she needed about unemployment, for example.
“A lot of this I had to find out on my own,” the Marine Corps veteran said.
Harrell added it could be especially disheartening for veterans with PTSD.
“That’s the No. 1 reason that there’s veteran suicide,” Tompkins added. “When the veteran is not told the proper thing, hardships make a person want to kill themselves.”
Tompkins recalled a friend who killed himself so his five kids would receive the $300,000 compensation from his death.
Tompkins spoke about some of the veteran-related problems in Maryland. When he lived in Texas, he paid $13 a year for a license plate that identified him as disabled. But Tompkins said Maryland only gives those plates to veterans who are 100% disabled instead of to people like Tompkins, who is considered 30% disabled.
He described a scenario of a police officer pulling over a veteran who does not have a license plate. Tompkins said the plate could change the way the officer approaches the car. If the driver were suffering from PTSD, for example, the cop should know to approach the passenger side of the vehicle and keep in mind the driver is possibly armed.
Tompkins said Maryland could benefit from adopting these standards.
“PTSD has a worldwide variety of triggers,” he said, adding that some veterans do not want to drive because of it.
The group said they submitted proposals for the 2020 Maryland legislative session through the Charles commissioners. Their biggest issue? Transportation.
Tompkins pointed out there is no access to the Metro in Charles, where 17,000 registered veterans live, and the local VanGo bus service only goes so far. Veterans find themselves waking up three hours earlier, accounting for the distance and traffic, to make it to their morning appointments on time, he said.
Moses said they bring the doctor’s appointments to them by taking a laptop to their home so patients can Skype with their doctors. The state commander said he wants a transportation system that would go from Baltimore County to Southern Maryland, including St. Mary’s County and Solomons Island.
Jerry Taylor, NABVets Southern Maryland’s chapter commander who uses a wheelchair, said the Charles County commissioners building in La Plata is not fully wheelchair accessible. He described a time when he went to the restroom but the doors “were so darn heavy” someone else had to open it.
“And this is a good building but it’s not handicap friendly at all,” he said
Harrell described Taylor as “self-sufficient” who drives himself.
“But the majority of disabled veterans in his capacity, don’t have someone to help get where they need to go,” she said.
“Just to make it clear, we will never turn anyone away who doesn’t look like us,” Harrell said.
“That includes anyone with less than honorable discharge,” Taylor added.
Taylor, a Vietnam War veteran who spent 20 years in the black operations unit, said NABVets does not believe in handouts but “hand-ups” and the veterans they are assisting should be “part of the heavy lifting. We’ll make sure you get everything you’re entitled to,” he added.
Taylor said NABVets does what they can to give immediate assistance to veterans in the area. “Veterans come to me if they have an issue, and I connect them with services,” he said.
Some services include getting them off the streets and giving them a place to stay for the night. “That is a Band-Aid to a major problem,” Taylor said.
Harrell said they collaborate with organizations like Vet Space, a nonprofit veteran assistance organization, to help file disability claims. In 2018, they helped file 357 claims.
Moses said every Monday they do 30 to 40 claims for service people near Joint Base Andrews from 9 a.m. to noon. Despite the time slot, Moses said he often does not leave until 5 or 6 p.m.
Harrell said the veteran community is prideful and she encourages them to speak about their struggles. She recalled her own struggles of being unemployed and worried she and her daughter would become homeless. After bouncing back and joining NABVets, the Southern Maryland vice commander now gives presentations on military sexual trauma.
About one in four women and one in 100 men report a history of military sexual trauma, or MST, when screened by a VA health care provider, according to her presentation.
“Although rates are higher among women, because of the larger number of men in the military about 40 percent of the veterans seen in VA who report MST are men,” Harrell’s presentation stated.
Veteran Affairs provides free treatment for physical and mental conditions related to military sexual trauma and no documentation related to the incident or disability compensation rating is required.
“They think that if you have not said anything it can’t be taken care of, which is wrong, which is incorrect,” Harrell said about veterans.
She said NABVets assistance “empowers them back into validity” and strengthens the veteran community. “We definitely pay it forward to one another,” Harrell added. “I’ve never been this proud of being called a veteran,” she said.
For more information about the National Association for Black Veterans, call 301-752-3915 or visit https://nabvets.com.