Out & About: Forums aim to connect veterans with their communities

Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-05-2023 2:58 AM

SOUTH ROYALTON — When Sean Braunstein returned to New Hampshire after serving in the Army, the transition back to civilian life was a challenge.

“When you sign up, you’re basically signing your life as a blank check to the United States up to any amount, including your life,” said Braunstein, who served form 2003 to 2007 as a chemical specialist and medic. “I don’t think civilians understand the impact that that has to a person’s psyche.”

Unless civilians have family members or friends who have served it can be difficult for them to relate to veterans’ experiences or offer support. Sometimes it could be fear of asking the wrong questions or being unsure about how to start those conversations. That’s something a Vermont-based nonprofit organization called Vets Town Hall is hoping to address with a series of community forums aiming to connect civilians to veterans in their communities.

This year, two forums are scheduled to take place in the Upper Valley: Braunstein, now a student at Vermont Law and Graduate School, is hosting a town hall on Thursday, Nov. 9, at the school’s Chase Community Center. There will be a community meal at 5:30 p.m. and the town hall itself will begin at 6 p.m. There will also be a town hall Sunday, Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. at Orange East Senior Center in Bradford, Vt. More information can be found at: vtvetstownhall.org.

“I think this is an awesome opportunity for civilians to hear some of the stories from veterans about their service and what it’s meant or done to them,” said Braunstein, who works at the Veteran Legal Aid Project at Vermont Law and Graduate School.

During the events, veterans are the only ones who speak, said Kristen Eaton, deputy director for Vets Town Hall, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization founded by author Sebastian Junger. While Vets Town Hall provides assistance to the organizers, the town halls are hosted by individual community members like Braunstein and Marty McMahon, who is facilitating the Bradford event. Each veteran speaks for up to 10 minutes. They can either sign up ahead of time, or choose to speak once they get to the event. Additionally, representatives from the Vermont Veterans and Family Outreach Program will be on hand for those who may need support.

“Part of it is creating this space where this is this clear invitation, where we are clearly saying ‘we do want to hear about your experiences, we do want to hear what you have to say, what you would like to share with your community’ and part of it is also setting up the environment where its clear that the event is not political,” Eaton said. “We are not going to get into debates of foreign policy. It’s about individual experiences, not foreign policy.”

That being said, veterans are welcome to speak about how specific policy decisions, such as those regarding burn pits, have had on their lives.

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“I think it’s so important for us as a society for us to understand that there are specific human ramifications to the decisions that get made,” Eaton said. “That the things we have heard about in the news are affecting individuals, and not just statistics.”

Veterans of all ages, military branches and backgrounds are welcome to share. It doesn’t matter if they served stateside or abroad, or what jobs they held while were in the military. Children are welcome, with the caveat that adult topics will likely be discussed; veterans speak freely and organizers do not know what they will say ahead of time.

“The important thing is we want community members to understand there are different kinds of service and the experience is different for everyone’s who’s in,” said McMahon, who has previously hosted town halls in Newport, Vt., and St. Johnsbury, Vt. “It’s also important for the veterans to be able to speak about their experience because sometimes they hold it in too much and this is a good opportunity to get it out there.”

McMahon served as a medic in the Air Force from 1969 to 1972, and later in life worked at the Community College of Vermont as a veteran and military resource adviser. He also worked with students who were not veterans “who just had no clue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were even happening,” McMahon said. “That disconnection is there.”

Braunstein, McMahon and Eaton hope that the town halls provide a space for veterans and civilians to form connections.

“I do think that oftentimes nonveterans like myself come to these events expecting the serious stuff, the really hard subjects, but I have often found that I’m always really affected by the courage and generosity of the speakers,” Eaton said. “It is really heartening to sit in a space in person with community members and hear folks speak in a nuanced way on these serious topics. In a way it’s a sort of antidote to social media.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@ vnews.com or 603-727-3221.