A group dedicated to helping local combat veterans finally has a home of its own in downtown Visalia.
Since 2015, A Combat Veteran’s Hope (ACVH) has aided veterans who have experienced war firsthand, their volunteers meeting with them in whatever spaces they could find and organizing events from their homes.
“This is one of our goals that we wanted to reach,” said Norbie Lara, cofounder and the group’s executive director. “We’d been working out of houses for years. It wasn’t conducive to meeting with veterans. It wasn’t working for privacy.”
ACVH’s new office is located at 121 E. Main St, Suite 108.
Lara, who lost an arm while serving in Iraq, says efforts to help local “warfighters” were born from a desire to make a greater impact locally.
“I’d just stopped working with Wounded Warrior, and I didn’t get a lot of chances to work with local warfighters,” he said.
While he appreciates their efforts, the problem with national veterans support groups, he says, is inconsistency.
“They were really not providing as much support as the local warfighters needed, although they were trying their best,” said Lara. “They’d come in and do an event and then leave once every couple of months. What we thought is, we’d do one or two events every couple of months, just to fill the gaps for them. That turned into having sports activities and everything we offer.”
In the last four years, ACVH has developed to the point it now offers at least 15 different events each month, mostly focused on bringing combat veterans together.
“We focus mostly on engagement, getting them out of their houses and getting them in environments where they are surrounded by folks who have a like past,” said Lara.
‘Don’t Have to Heal Alone’
Sharing the burden is often helpful for those who have been deployed to active war zones.
“When warfighters come home, they feel like they’re the only ones,” said Lara. “What we do is we explain to them they didn’t go to war alone, they don’t have to heal alone.”
Giving combat vets a chance to be with others who’ve had similar experiences can help former military members work their way back into normal life, as well as taking the edge off the mental and physical damage war can inflict, he said.
“When we put them around one another, they immediately start bonding with one another because all of us have been to war and we all know what that means, and we all know what it feels like when we come home, and not being able to relate to our family members or friends,” Lara said. “But, we are able to relate to one another, and we all struggle with just about the same things, post-traumatic stress, self-medicating, depression.”
ACVH hosts a peer support therapy group at its Main Street office from 6 to 7:30pm on the second and fourth Thursdays each month. The peer support sessions are open to all veterans.
The decision to have their efforts target only combat veterans, Lara said, was an attempt to ensure ACVH didn’t see the same mission spread national charities often experience.
“What we realized was if we supported all veterans, we’d be doing just as much as the national organizations are doing and spreading ourselves too thin,” he said. “What we want to do is be very specific in who we support and just focus on them.”
ACVH’s leadership also decided it needed to be cross-generational in its approach, lending support to veterans of all combat theaters.
“A lot of these organizations are only helping post-9/11 combat veterans, and we can’t just forget about the ones who served in Vietnam and all those folks,” Lara said. “We need to support those folks as well.”
The group also welcomes those who served at sea.
“They’re welcome to join,” Lara said. “This can be boots on the ground or on a ship, as long as the ship was actually engaged in battle, meaning that they’ve been on a ship while it was firing.”
Local combat veterans can join the ranks of ACVH by visiting its website–acvhope.org.
Many Ways to Heal
The first program put together by ACVH was a softball team, and while the team is still together–along with a couple of volleyball squads–outreach efforts have grown substantially in variety. ACVH sponsors a weekly breakfast at the Visalia Veterans Memorial Building, 609 W. Center Ave., from 7 to 9am on the first Wednesday of the month, and they’ve partnered with groups such as Happy Trails Riding Academy, Central California Adaptive Sports, the California Service Dog Academy, Vets With Wings, and Comrades and Canopies, all of which provide support and therapeutic services.
“We’ve kind of become a conduit to connect people to these organizations they wouldn’t even have heard of if we hadn’t been here,” Lara said.
Currently, ACVH volunteers work with just fewer than 150 combat veterans, but the extent of their reach goes far beyond that.
“I think we’re at about 145 (clients). But, they average about three family members each, so we’re supporting quite a lot of people,” said Lara. “It’s hard for us to say how many are out there. But, we allow anybody to apply. There are very few instances where we say, ‘No, that doesn’t apply.’”
The variety of events and healing services ACVH provides and facilitates is wide intentionally. The aim is to find the right fit for each individual member.
“There are so many different opportunities to heal. For myself, I’ve tried medication, meditation, I’ve done all kinds of different therapy until I found the right mix for myself, and that’s what we try to provide,” said Lara. “Unfortunately, sometimes they try something and it doesn’t work, and they think that’s just going to be the way it is for the rest of their lives, and that’s not true. We believe in post-traumatic growth, and the struggle that you had and finding the growth there.”
Making Ends Meet
ACVH also offers financial assistance to its clientele.
“We don’t want them to struggle or to be in a mindset where they don’t know where to turn,” Lara said. “We definitely want them to come to us.”
The local agency can often provide monetary help far more quickly than national veterans groups, which is especially important considering how difficult it can be to seek assistance.
“It’s very difficult for veterans to ask for help. What we provide is a really quick turnaround. If they apply through a national organization, it can take up to three weeks to get assistance, and by that time, you know, it’s too late,” Lara said. “When they come to us, they get us the proper documents and we can get a bill paid that same day. We don’t want them to worry. They have other things to worry about, and finances should not be one of them.”
Veterans, especially those who have seen combat, commit suicide at much higher rates than the rest of the populace, so keeping their stressors to a minimum can be a matter of life and death.
“We’re well aware of what the suicide rate is for veterans every single day, and we want to make sure we get to them before those thoughts start entering their minds,” Lara said.
Much of the work done by ACVH is focused not on the vets, but on their families. Recently, the group hosted a Spring Celebration in Tulare, and next month its hosting a water park event.
“Everything we provide them is absolutely free,” Lara said. “We don’t charge any fees or dues. We think they’ve sacrificed enough.”
Lara’s wife Pricilla oversees ACVH’s Family Support Program, which focuses on networking events that create opportunities for vets to spend more time with their loved ones.
“Sometimes they (family members) struggle too with supporting their warfighters,” Lara said. “We want to make sure they feel supported as well.”
They also try to foster compassion for those who have experienced war on the front lines.
“We also provide educational programs so their families can better understand what post-traumatic stress is, so they can support their veterans to do as much as possible,” Lara said. “Post-traumatic stress, we know it’s never going to go away, but we can provide them opportunities to learn how to cope with it, identify the triggers and move forward as much as possible.”
Helping Each Otherw
A primary goal of all ACVH’s efforts is getting clients to the point they can help their fellow combat vets, Lara said.
“Once you get to that place, you can throw the ladder back over the fence for the next guy or girl. We want to empower them to heal and give them the opportunity to help their brother or sister heal as well,” he said. “I love when they say, ‘I’m so grateful for what you did for me. What can I do for the other guys?’”
ACVH is a nonprofit and gladly accepts donations to fund its efforts. Lara says support from local people and business has been very encouraging.
“The community has been amazing,” he said. “They used to go to national organizations, as soon as we set up A Combat Veteran’s Hope, they chose to come to us instead. We welcome them with open arms. We need the support. We can’t do what we do without the support of our local community.”
Volunteers are also welcome to join.
“There are lots of ways to volunteer,” Lara said. “We have lots of opportunities for our community to engage with our warfighters and help them.”
Volunteers and those who wish to donate can find more information at acvhope.org or on the group’s Facebook page. Details of the group’s fundraisers, such as an upcoming golf tourney this September, can also be found online.
Forward Operating Bases
Opening an office was a major achievement for ACVH. While the Visalia office is its first outlet, it won’t be the last.
“This is going to be the first of many,” Lara said. “This was a huge step for us, to open this office.”
The Visalia office will likely remain focused on administrative work, but ACVH intends to expand into establishing locations where veterans can interact with each other on a daily basis.
“What we want to do is open what we call forward operating bases in like Fresno and here in Visalia and Porterville, centers where veterans can be with one another and just engage with one another,” Lara said. “We really want to grow. We want this organization to change and save as many lives as possible.”
The concept, he says, is one whose time has come.
“It’s definitely something that’s been needed in the Valley for a very long time,” Lara said. “We’re honored and grateful to be able to help these men and women.”