Navy vet takes up new mission to assist other veterans

U.S. Navy veteran Bill Buffington, founder and executive director of the nonprofit group VConnections, sits outside the La Plata Chick-fil-A restaurant, which hosts weekly Veteran Coffee Breaks.

Helping veterans transition to civilian life, and providing connections to services, has become U.S. Navy veteran Bill Buffington’s new mission.

“VConnections is my heartbeat. I live for VConnections,” Buffington said. “Veterans Day is something that should be every day.”

Buffington is the founder and executive director of VConnections, a White Plains-based nonprofit group dedicated to connecting Southern Maryland veterans and their families with resources in the tri-county area by partnering with local, state and federal agencies and advocating for the needs of Southern Maryland veterans and their families.

“The concept for VConnections is to connect our veterans and their families to local, state and federal resources, whether that be homeless resources, transitional education, health and wellness,” Buffington said. “When a veteran walks off a military base, and the military base says ‘thank you for your service,’ and you walk outside that gate, that’s when you realize that you’re in another world. The word ‘transition’ doesn’t even define what a veteran feels when he or she leaves service. Health care, education, community … it’s a challenge.”

VConnections hosts veterans coffee breaks at Chick-fil-A restaurants in La Plata, Waldorf and Brandywine, including one for women veterans only, as well as fishing trips and golf clinics for veterans.

Buffington said one of the goals of the organization is to help connect veterans with services, cutting through the red tape that many veterans face.

Bill Needham of La Plata was one such. In the 1960s, Needham served as a crew member of a two-engine aircraft, which launched from the wooden flight deck of an aircraft carrier. There was no ear protection at the time, only a cloth helmet.

Needham began experiencing hearing loss in the 1980s and in 1999, tried to get hearing aids through the Veterans Administration, but received conflicting information.

When Needham met Buffington at the La Plata coffee break, Buffington arranged an appointment for Needham, and within six months, Needham had hearing aids.

“I was totally amazed that any government agency could move that quickly,” his wife, Susan Needham, said. “The man is definitely a champion for veterans.”

“Thank goodness for Bill Buffington,” Bill Needham added. “Because I couldn’t find anyone who told me I could get hearing aids.”

Buffington is a native of North Carolina. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1972.

“I had to make some choices coming out of high school to help support my family, and I chose the Navy,” Buffington said.

Buffington served on the USS Saratoga and the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carriers, serving overseas in the Mediterranean.

Buffington also played basketball for the Navy and for the Department of Defense all-star team.

“We actually practiced against the U.S. Women’s Basketball team, and they destroyed us, but it was fun,” Buffington said.

In 1980, Buffington reenlisted and was assigned to Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C.

During his time in the Navy, Buffington was named Sailor of the Month and Sailor of the Quarter multiple times, and was twice nominated for Sailor of the Year.

Buffington left the Navy in 1984, at the rank of E-6, petty officer first class, shortly before the birth of his daughter.

“I had a chance to possibly go to [Officer Command School] but didn’t; I chose to chase the dollar instead,” Buffington said.

Buffington worked for a government contractor as a systems analyst before taking a job in the information technology industry. Buffington said he was in line to become vice president of marketing when the “tech bubble” collapsed in 2001.

“When they went down, they downsized me, which meant I was out the door,” Buffington said.

Buffington and his family moved to Charles County, and in 2013, Buffington enrolled in the College of Southern Maryland to study business administration.

While a student at CSM, Buffington helped found the CSM Veterans Organization and was one of 125 applicants out of 1,500 selected in 2014 to attend the Veterans Association Leadership Institute, which provides leadership training for officers of college veterans groups.

Buffington said he co-founded the CSM Veterans Organization to provide assistance to those veterans attending college, many of whom faced struggles unique to veterans.

“What I saw coming on campus, in the classroom … I saw a student coming into the classroom, a 19- or 20-year-old, coming back from an event, traumatized, with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], being challenged by being in an academic environment,” Buffington said.

Buffington said VConnections came out of his desire to form a nonprofit that would give back to those who have sacrificed so much for their community.

“I knew that VConnections would be a resource to the community,” Buffington said. “I knew I could get VConnections launched and be what it is today, and it’s growing even faster than I thought it would.”

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews

Twitter: @JamieACIndyNews