Since 2007 the Augusta Warrior Project (AWP) has worked to bring together necessary resources to help local warriors, whether or not they have been wounded, and their families. Recently the organization underwent a name change, becoming Forces United, to broaden its reach. They recognize that there are over 60 thousand veterans in the Augusta-Aiken area that are in need of assistance.
Brad Means: Kim Elle, the president and CEO of Forces United. It used to be AWP, Augusta Warrior Project. Kim, congratulations on the name change, welcome.
Kim Elle: Thank you, Brad.
Brad Means: Why’d you change your name? What was wrong with AWP? It was that way for more than 10 years.
Kim Elle: So, nothing wrong with AWP. You know, I think there was a little bit of confusion but we wanted to be more inclusive. We wanted to be able to come up with a name that included everybody that we work with both clients but also supporters and sponsors, and donors in our community.
Brad Means: So, it doesn’t change what you do or who you help, or does it? Does it broaden the spectrum of men and women who can come to your door?
Kim Elle: So we’ve always served anybody that’s ever served. So all the way back from World War II to currently serving and their families, and that’s the big distinction between us and other organizations is there are no parameters if you raised your right hand we’re here to serve, regardless of what it is. Regardless of when you served.
Brad Means: When you help somebody, we’ll get into the specific ways that you do, do you pay for everything that goes along with it? Is the veteran or the service man or woman expected to meet you at some point in the, close to he middle? How’s it work?
Kim Elle: So we don’t expect veterans to pay for our services at all. We’re there free of service as a local non-profit and depending on the situation. We have funds where we help with prevention and things like that. But we really rely heavily on the community and that is one of the reasons why we did this name change is because our successes are not just because of AWP or the Augusta Warrior Project, but who we are as a united front in our community.
Brad Means: What do service members need the most? What’s the most common concern or question they have for y’all?
Kim Elle: I think navigating the transition. When people leave the military and come into the civilian world because it is so different. Oftentimes somebody needs help with employment, education, benefits or housing. But I like to say it’s the everything in between because it’s what people don’t realize that we can help them with that they find is the biggest need that they have.
Brad Means: It seems to me, and this is probably an ignorant point of view, but if someone came back from serving our country all doors would be open to them. Is it not that those doors aren’t open but that the veteran just doesn’t know how to approach those organizations? ‘Cause once they do aren’t people willing to help ’em?
Kim Elle: 100%, you know our community is above and beyond. I like to tell people in other parts of the country it’s the magic in Augusta that helps us do what we wanna do. But oftentimes people, one, don’t realize that it’s an issue until we know what they’re dealing with. The other thing is there’s so many different resources people don’t know where to begin. So we’re a great place to begin because if we just know who you are and what you’re up to we’ll figure out how to get there. We like to say that we like to get to yes as long as it’s legal, moral and ethical. So, doesn’t matter what it is we’ll work at getting there.
Brad Means: So what’s that look like for the job seeker for instance? Do you just assess their skillset and then try to get them employed?
Kim Elle: So, it depends on where they’re at in their journey. So, if they are newly transitioning, we’re trying to get them connected to an employment opportunity before they get out so that there’s no lapse in employment. In some cases it’s us figuring out what’s the best fit for them, but what’s best fit for the company. It might be helping them get some certifications. To work on some of those cyber and IT certifications so that they can land a meaningful high paying job and not just settle for something smaller.
Brad Means: What about when it comes to the health and wellness services that you offer? I would imagine a lot of our veterans are seeking those.
Kim Elle: Absolutely, in fact this past year there’s been an increased interest in health and wellness piece. And I’ll give a good example. Just this past week we’ve been working with a veteran who’s in his late 30s dying of cancer, and you know, we as a community are working hard to make sure that we get them connected to all the resources. So some of it is health and wellness, some of it is benefits, and others are just helping him plan for the future ’cause he knows he’s not gonna be here much longer.
Brad Means: Well, thank you for that first of all. Making that stage of life a lot more bearable, I suspect. What about when it comes to finding a place to live? You don’t think about that. You’ve all of a sudden had a roof over your head your whole career and then you don’t. How do you help ’em go down that path?
Kim Elle: Again, it depends on where they’re at in the situation, but oftentimes if we find that somebody’s not stably housed we quickly figure out how do we get them stably housed. Within that we figure out is that job an issue? Is it benefits the issue? But when somebody is not, does not have a roof over their head, we immediately figure out what do we need to do to be able to get a roof over their head. We have some veterans that are sleeping on couches. We have some that are sleeping in the woods. We have some people that are about to be evicted for whatever reason. We have every imaginable scenario and it doesn’t matter to us we’ll still figure out how to get them stably housed.
Brad Means: What’s a typical first place they go? Hotel, shelter?
Kim Elle: Well, both actually. It depends because not everybody meets the criteria for a shelter. The problem is with some grants individuals can’t pay for their own hotel so we have to find a third party to fund that hotel stay so that we can get them into a housing program. So there’s a lot of things that we have to do correctly so that they can be eligible for some of those grants.
Brad Means: How do they get to your door in the first place? How do they find out about Forces United? Do you have contacts in the branches of the military that say hey, you’re about to get out, go see Forces United. Is that how it would look?
Kim Elle: That’s part of how it looks. So a lot of it is I think recognition and friends talking to friends but we get a lot of referrals from Fort Gordon. We get referrals from other military installations. We get referrals from the VA. We get referrals from the sheriff’s department. I mean it comes from everywhere you can imagine and I think what’s been great in this community is this community has really been so supportive of military veterans that any time there’s a need they call us first and then we figure out where to put ’em from there.
Brad Means: What about a spouse or other family member that’s here while their loved one is serving? Can they get the ball rolling with Forces United so that when their transition begins y’all are way ahead of it.
Kim Elle: Absolutely, so we actually help active duty spouses. We help veteran spouses and we actually have quite a few number of widowed spouses. So either their spouse has either committed suicide or had some type of death. You know with the suicide rate so high across this country we’ve really made a concerted effort to make sure that people know we’re a resource. Whether your service member or veteran is still here or not.
Brad Means: Yeah this is such a military town. It’s also such a higher education town, community. What about your relationship with the institutions of higher education? When these people come back and say, wait I’m ready to go back to my studies.
Kim Elle: So actually we have a great relationship across the community with all of the colleges and universities, but what we try to do is try to best assess what’s the best fit for that person. You know because maybe a technological school is better for one. But maybe for another they wanna go work on a certification. Or maybe this person over here wants to use their G.I. Bill and they wanna do a four year degree. So we take the time to really help them maximize their G.I money, G.I. Bill money, but also maximize the resources that we have in the community.
Brad Means: So for those people who are trying to continue or get their education it’s not really a matter of paying for it if they’ve got the G.I. money set aside, right?
Kim Elle: Correct.
Brad Means: Why is this community so supportive of you? We were talking before the broadcast about the turnout last week when you changed your name to Forces United. A significant number of people turned out. Why do we love our military so much? Does Fort Gordon get all the credit?
Kim Elle: You know, I think the entire community gets all the credit because it’s Fort Gordon, it’s this community, it’s our region, it’s our state. The state of Georgia has really focused a lot on military, I think that’s part of it. But I also thing the fact that everybody wants to make sure everybody has a fresh opportunity, I think that’s the different maker is we’re never told no. If there’s somebody in need, if we make that phone call I guarantee you almost every single time we can get to yes.
Brad Means: How long does it take to get to a yes, typically? No matter the need.
Kim Elle: Some things are quick. You know the scenario I just gave you the cancer individual within a couple of hours we were able to make three life changing things happen just within a few hours but then there’s some other things that are gonna take a process of one, to two, to three weeks to get that accomplished.
Brad Means: It sounds like you have a pretty streamlined system over there. I mean it’s pretty painless, right?
Kim Elle: Most days it is, but every day is so different. I think again the big thing is we have a community that is so giving, caring and loving that it doesn’t matter what our situation is all we have to do is pick up the phone and say we have this situation, are you able to help? Almost every single time the answer is yes.
Brad Means: What more can we do? What do you need from folks watching to help you fulfill your mission?
Kim Elle: I think the biggest thing is to be an ambassador. Be an advocate of this work and know that we will work tirelessly to find resolution and solutions so that every single person that’s ever served has an opportunity for something new and different. I think doing that, I think volunteering and then supporting those that need that support because it takes money in some of these situations, and we’re not good at that. We do not ask people for money, you know. And we have great supporters in this community but for us to continue to do this work we need the community to continue to support us in all different sorts of ways.
Brad Means: Well, I appreciate what you do and thank you for helping our local service members, our veterans, their family members at Forces United. Great job.
Kim Elle: Appreciate it, thank you Brad.
Brad Means: Absolutely, Kim Elle you’re always welcome here and we wanna encourage you to do as Kim suggested and get involved. You can help make a positive local impact. Visit forcesunited.org to donate. You can give ’em a call at 706-951-7506 or just email right now while you’re watching. Info@forcesunited.org, they can get you that yes if you will make the first move now.