Army veteran launched program to educate other veterans about benefits, support

For The Sun NewsMay 24, 2014 

Steven Stephens is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He operates a veterans resource center in Conway.

COURTESY PHOTO

Veterans resource advocate Stephen S. Stevens has a heart for his brothers and sisters who served.

A 28-year veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stevens grew up in Caribou, Maine.

“My dad was a career Air Force man,” he said. “He was in 30 years and was a base commander at Loring Air Force Base. He was also a pilot and did two tours in Vietnam.”

Stevens wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot, but said his vision was not as great as he thought it was. He opted for the Army instead, starting out with a Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS, as food service specialist, primarily because his grandfather had several bakeries in New York and Stevens visited him in the summers.

“When my grandma passed away, he moved in with us and was continuously baking –getting up at four in the morning. I watched him a lot.”

When he was in cook school, he got called into the first sergeant’s office and thought he was in trouble. He wasn’t. He said he was offered a stint in what he thought was the CIA.

“I found out that he was talking about the Culinary Institute of America.”

He took the offer and earned an associate’s degree in business and culinary arts and was sent to his first duty station in Europe.

“I would cater to the USO clubs and the entertainment that came over,” he said. “That was really cool.”

Over the years, he switched his MOS, and during his career has been combat medic and infantry, among other roles.

“I was 82nd Airborne and went to sniper school in Panama,” he said. He did winter survival training, which came naturally because of his time in Maine. “I was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio at the time. They were asking for volunteers to do this at Fort Drum in upstate New York. I thought, ‘why not – I’m used to the cold.’”

Stevens’ military career culminated with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007.

His takeaway from the war on terror is this: “People don’t keep their guard up. We have these conflicts and then there is a transition process and everybody thinks everything is all right. They let their guard down and all of a sudden something happens again and nobody is prepared – and then we’re right back in the same boat.”

Stateside, he also did peer support counseling for troops deploying and returning from Afghanistan, and this kindled a passion for helping those who have served their country. Some of this included military wives.

“Some of these ladies were back home with their children, and a lot of them didn’t even know how to balance a checkbook, pay their bills or get groceries,” he said.

He and his wife, Leah Stevens, would go to their homes, some of which were singlewide trailers.

“They would have a 70-inch TV inside and a Cadillac in the front, but no running water. We would coax them to come to group meetings to learn some life skills. Their children were not eating right, and they needed to learn how to pay bills. They needed to know who to get in touch with for things like medical emergencies,” he said.

Stevens and his wife moved to Conway from Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2007, when he separated from service.

Prior to resuming his education, he spent some time with Rolling Thunder.

“I met Stephen about six years ago when he joined Rolling Thunder South Carolina Chapter 3,” said chapter president Bill DeVaughn. “He was a very active member.”

It was when he decided to go back to school at Horry-Georgetown Technical College that he discovered there was a real need to make veterans aware of the resources and benefits available to them.

“Nobody knew anything as far as veterans’ benefits,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to be getting, and the school had no real resources.”

Through a friend, he found out about a veterans work study program at the South Carolina Department of Employment Workforce Center in Conway. While there, he discovered that there was not much by way of resources, either.

“The only thing they were doing with the veterans was showing them how to go online and file unemployment claims or put a resume online. When veterans came in, I started asking them, ‘Are you getting all of your VA benefits? Do you have a disability compensation claim filled out? Did you know that when you come back from a combat tour you have five free years of health insurance and in that time you can have [disability compensation] money coming in?’”

But one of the major issues for Stevens was education benefits.

“A lot of veterans – not only Iraq or Afghanistan, but Vietnam, Korea and World War II veterans – were always pushed to the back burner and didn’t realize that they still had education benefits available to them. The schools did not have that information out there for them.”

He said that post-9/11 benefits pay for school for up to 34 months and includes a stipend each month for housing.

“After that expires, you can transfer over to Chapter 31 vocational rehabilitation if you are a veteran with 20 percent or more of a disability. They have program for 48 months, and you still get the stipend.”

While Stevens was at HGTC, he set up a veterans’ resource and support group there. When he transferred to Coastal Carolina University, he formed an organization called Chants for Veterans, which provided, as stated on the organization’s website, “resources for veterans to connect and assist in the transition into college, access to resources and peer support and camaraderie. We also aim to make CCU students, veterans, and families aware of services and benefits available to them through the VA and local veterans’ organizations.”

Stevens graduated from CCU this spring with a master’s in sociology and interdisciplinary studies.

“Stephen’s dedication and passion for helping his fellow veterans is commendable,” said DeVaughn. “He is a fighter and will do whatever it takes to get our local veterans what they have earned. His work at the college[s] has helped so many of our returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Stevens maintains a resource center at Frank Theatres Rivertowne Stadium 12 in Conway, which was in essence a satellite for Chants for Veterans – but now it will be used for his new undertaking, Mission Accomplished – a variation on the theme. The thrust remains the same, which according to a recent press release is to “inform all veterans, families and student veterans of updated services and resources available to them through the VA covering such topics as; Medical, Mental and Women’s Health care, (HUD-VASH) Homeless Veterans Program, Women Veterans Focus Group, Employment Services, Veterans Justice Outreach and Peer Support Counseling available to them through the VA.” Education benefits still factor into this mix, as well as to “cultivate an enhanced awareness of veterans’ issues and concerns.”

The Mission Accomplished resource center at Frank Theatres is well stocked with all manner of educational literature specific to the needs of veterans. Stevens makes himself available and strives to ease the burden of process.

“Right now you can come here for the resources, or call me and make an appointment. You can come see me here or at my home or I can meet you in a restaurant. As long as you tell me you are going to be coming, I’ll wait for you and I can get you the paperwork that you need. Or we can go online if you need to check anything.”

It is apparent that helping other veterans is near and dear to Stevens.

“Stephen has a strong sense of justice and feels that veterans have earned their benefits and should have access and support from the community that they unselfishly served, defended and sacrificed for,” wife Leah Stevens said. “Other than realizing a need for his continued support and assistance for area veterans and veteran families, Stephen enjoys a sense of accomplishment helping others reach their goals or improving their day-to-day lives.” She added that she did not serve in the military, but has always supported her husband’s military career and both have helped and supported other military families along the way.

But everybody needs downtime.

“I try to stay busy,” Stevens said. “I like music and my wife and I ride motorcycles. We have an RV, so we might put the motorcycles in there and go to New Orleans or Texas – just two days here and there.”

He fondly remembers a trip he took last year, assisting World War II Marine captain William Haake on the Honor Flight in August.

“This was one of the greatest experiences I had – to go to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans with a bunch of WWII veterans most of them well into their 90s,” he said. “I got to hear their stories while they shared some of their experiences with me. These veterans led the way, fighting for America and what it stood for. Even though they are in their 90s, their claims are still denied, their paperwork gets lost or no one reaches out to them. WWII veterans get discouraged easily because they don’t understand the confusing VA system. They simply give up.”

Because helping other veterans is his passion, decompression time can be fleeting.

“Every now and then I take care of myself,” he said.

For more information, contact Stevens at 902-8182.

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