Each Veterans Day, we honor those who served to defend this nation. Parades. Shows. Visible well intentioned and well deserved thanks.
Often lost in the moment is that for so many veterans, serving remains in their blood. It doesn’t end when they are handed their DD-214 discharge paperwork. To the contrary, they are just getting started.
These veterans might have served on the front lines as soldiers, Marines, sailors, and aviators, in war zones such as Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
They serve now on different front lines as first responders fighting fires, in medical response, and in law enforcement. They coordinate other volunteer efforts, not only to aid other veterans but also to benefit everyone. They also are at the forefront of battling the latest enemy: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Just because you served in the military, most veterans don’t come home and think, ‘My service is done,’” said Josh Fryday, Chief Service Officer for Governor Gavin Newsom’s California Volunteers. The agency recruits volunteers and coordinates volunteer efforts on practically every front, including COVID-19 response.
“My military experience played a major role in the job I do now,” he said. “It taught me the power of service, of bringing different people together for a common mission, a common purpose.”
A Navy veteran, Fryday was part of the 7th Fleet’s Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief efforts following the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. While deployed to the ship overseeing the operation, his own family evacuated.
“Within the community there was a huge willingness for people to help each other,” he said. “People step up to help each other.”
Which is exactly what he is doing with California Volunteers and its 50,000-plus participants who have joined the service initiative, #CaliforniansForAll to support communities across the state. The service initiative offers volunteers opportunities to fight against COVID-19 and ways to take climate action. To date, volunteers have packed over 100 million meals as part of the Operation Feed California, a new statewide food distribution initiative to support food banks during the pandemic.
And the agency is using Veterans Day as a challenge to Californians to thank a veteran for his or her service, and then sign up to serve your community at CaliforniansForAll.CA.GOV. Buy a vet a meal, and then sign-up for a shift at your local food bank. In other words, thank those who served by serving.
Other veterans, including recent CalVet Women Veterans Trailblazer Award recipients Shakera Elrington and Cecilia Salazar, are using what they learned in the military and are applying it in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seven years into her Air Force career, Elrington switched from hospitality to laboratory science, using that experience to expedite her training after she left the military.
“California has a program that allows your time served in the military to assist you in becoming a California-certified lab scientist,” Elrington said.
“When the pandemic happened, other projects had to be put on the back burner,” she said. “We had to ramp up the testing as fast as possible.” She and other lab scientists immediately went from regular hours to around-the-clock work.
“That part reminded me of the military,” Elrington said. “In the military, you’re on call 24-7. When the pandemic came, it put me back 24-7 to hit the ground running. This affects everyone from patients to front-line workers. The nurses have to know whether they are positive or negative. They have families to go home to as well.”
Instead of sending the tests to outside labs, they took it on in-house.
“We do the validation for every single test,” she said. “It’s something that had to happen. We cut validation from two to three days to 45 minutes, and in some cases, 15 minutes.”
Her work ethic, knowledge, and efficiency involve a common thread: her time in the Air Force.
The same applies to Cecilia Salazar, who remains in the Navy Reserve. She worked as a nurse practitioner before becoming a psychiatric health practitioner. When the COVID-19 virus grew into a full-blown pandemic, the East Coast and particularly New York got hit the hardest first. She volunteered to work on a Navy team to provide COVID care in hospitals in Kings County and the Bronx; first in the medical unit, then assigned to the hospice unit.
Salazar frequently talked with a young woman in her mid-30s who was nearing the end of her life. The woman’s mother, obviously, could not visit her dying daughter.
“Her mother would ask me how she’s doing,” Salazar said. “I’d have to tell her what was going on, that her organs were shutting down. The mother was really grateful for all I was doing. I felt like I wasn’t doing too much. Her system was failing. The mother told me, ‘I’m so glad you’re there. You’re an angel. It’s a sad story, but gratifying.”’
When she leaves the Reserve in about a year, she will continue to provide help to those in need. “I’ve always thought about the homeless,” said Salazar, who works for Fresno County Behavioral Health when not on active duty. “When I see homeless vets, I want to stop and talk to them, give them the resources they need.”
Then there’s George Morris, who grew up in Paradise, became a firefighter with Cal Fire in 1996 and signed on as an Army Reservist a year later.
He served in Hungary in 2001, providing base security and personal security details for military leadership. In 2003 and 2004, he deployed to Balad and Baghdad, leading a squad of nine military police in over 300 combat missions in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. When his deployment ended, he returned to Cal Fire where he is now the assistant region chief of the Northern Region, which ranges from Lake Tahoe to the South Bay.
Five days after he returned, he was back on a Cal Fire engine fighting fires. “Not the brightest move,” he said, admitting he probably needed some R&R.
What did he learn in the Army that applies to the fire service and vice-versa? “To stay calm under pressure,” Morris said.
It came in handy in Baghdad. It was much harder to maintain back home in Paradise, where his hometown burned in a fire that killed 85 people and burned 14,000 homes in 2018. “They were so different, but they do parallel,” Morris said. “All through Iraq, the devastation, blown out buildings, tanks on their tops. Children three years old, begging.” It is what he expected in war, but not back home and against an enemy that had the forces of nature working on its behalf.
“The effects of that fire … the effects on the families and the community … calling as many people as I could and telling them to get out,” Morris said. That included his brother, a fellow Paradise High Bobcat who was living in a home Morris owned. His brother got out. The house burned to the ground. The difference, he said, is that Baghdad has gotten worse since he left. Here, he knows the people of Paradise, and knows that they are rebuilding. It will be a place of joy again someday.
“The lessons I learned in service to our nation help me negotiate my duties in profound ways,” Morris said. “The hardship of war is a crucible, what it forms is nothing short of alchemy. The pain and hardship by itself is useless, but it is the hard-fought perspective that actually becomes something priceless.”
Another who served, still serving.