BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's hard to wrap your brain around the devastation from recent floods and just how many people were affected, but when you dig a little deeper and realize the different specific segments of our population affected it becomes mind-blowing. Doctors, attorneys, people in public office – the floods did not discriminate.
For example, did you know that more than 171,000 veterans were impacted by August floods? Thousand! I just learned that statistic this week. So with Veterans Day on Friday, August 11, I paid a visit to the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs office in the Galvez building downtown to learn more.
"The number is unreal," said Communications Director Alex Juan. "I've been working the flood relief effort since all this kicked off. And it's personal to me because my family also lost everything. Like one night you're helping everybody else sandbag. The next morning seventy percent of your home and all of your belongings are gone."
Alex and other team members at the Veterans Affairs office in Baton Rouge have been putting in 10 and 12hour days since the flood.
"A lot of times it's just counseling folks, talking to them through that process. It's so much grief and pain and loss," Alex said sympathetically. "There's some days when you're just so frustrated and exhausted with your own stuff and just the long hours and then a veteran calls in and says, 'Hello, are you the VA?' And all I can say through my fatigue is sure. And he's like, 'Well I'm a veteran and I'm hungry. Can you bring me some lunch?' And then everything changes!" Alex said with a huge smile.
It's obvious Alex has a huge heart and a very sympathetic spirit for helping others.
Another way Alex said the VA is helping vets affected by the flood is through the Military Family Assistance Program (MFA).
Alex introduced me to Joey Strickland, the secretary for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The Military Assistance Program was a program that was passed by the legislature about 10 years ago," Strickland explained. "It was actually set up to support guardsmen who were deployed as a unit to Iraq and Afghanistan and it's been a great program, but the guard has not been deploying folks as units for a long time, and so the money in that program was building up.
"I was able to get a bill through the legislature extending the benefit of that program to help all needy veterans, not just guard and reserve, never knowing that we were going to have a flood," the secretary continued. "And we decided as a department and as a commission - there is a commission that oversees the fund - to donate $350 to every veteran affected by the flood, and so we've supported almost a thousand veterans with that money approaching $350,000 now."
Louisiana is one of only two states that have such a program.
Historically the MFA program has been funded at tax time when taxpayers can check a box on their income tax form to donate part of their refund to MFA, but with the recent floods and distribution of money, the MFA account is in need of replenishment. The department is working on new ways to received tax-deductible donations beginning, perhaps, as early as January 2017.
"Well Mr. Secretary, as you know I'm with the Hand It On program, and with Veterans Day coming up this Friday, it's kind of timely. We want to help you, in a small way, begin replenishing the MFA fund for our veterans. Here's $300," I said as our visit winded down, handing Strickland three crisp $100 bills.
"Oh, thank you very, very much," Secretary Strickland responded with a smile. "We really appreciate this. This will go a long way. We'll put this into our account toward helping our veterans."
As I was leaving, Alex told me with pride, "It's such an honor to be part of an organization that's making such a huge difference in the lives of our military families!"
Folks, do not forget our men and women of service this Friday. Get out and support any Veterans Day activities you possibly can. Let the 'greatest generation' know just how much they are loved and appreciated for what they've done to secure our freedoms.
To nominate someone for Hand It On, send an e-mail to HandItOn@wafb.com. Make sure to include your contact information, especially your phone number.