JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - Whether returning from a deployment or re-entering the civilian workforce, service members have a lot of decisions to make.

There are dozens of organizations on Joint Base Lewis-McChord designed to help transitioning service members, and the help doesn't stop there.

"Heroes to Hometowns," or "H2H," was created by the Department of Defense in 2005 to assist military communities with developing programs that would support veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, H2H falls under The American Legion, which is the nation's largest veterans service organization. It now embraces all returning veterans, with an emphasis on those who were injured.

For one local Army retiree, getting involved with the program was one way of giving back to a military that gave so much to him.

"I needed two things: I needed guidance and opportunity," said Patrick Steel. "The Army gave me both."

Steel began his career at Fort Lewis as a private in 1953. His service took him all over the world, and brought him back to Washington, where he retired as a colonel in 1980. Today, he is director of the local H2H chapter, which serves veterans in Pierce, Kitsap, Thurston, South King and Snohomish counties.

Steel said one part of his job as deputy post commander was knowing and networking with people in the community, so when he retired, it came natural for him to want to be involved. He was serving as chairman of a rotary military affairs committee when a friend asked him to help with H2H.

"We first called it Veterans Employment Service, but then changed it to Heroes to Hometowns," Steel said. "Doing so allowed us to tap into national support."

The program is a conglomeration of groups whose mission is to support troops. The local H2H chapter went from having a dozen groups to nearly 90 in less than five years. Steel said it's a testament to how much people want to show their appreciation for service members and their families.

"There has been an uprising of organizations at the local level throughout America who are providing support for the troops," he said, "and H2H is just one example. There are many other posts around the country doing lots of things for Soldiers. They're just not actively saying, 'I'm part of Heroes to Hometowns.'"

Active participants of H2H include the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, Army Wounded Warrior Program and Vets Meet Vets. Representatives from dozens of the groups gather monthly in Tacoma to discuss ways of maximizing their support while networking with one another. Several of the members are like Steel in that they have direct ties to the military. Some are military spouses or have a loved one who is an injured veteran; others simply want to show their support. No request from a service member or their family is too big or too small for them to fulfill.

"If someone says, 'I need diapers,' or 'I don't have anywhere to stay tonight,' these groups are there to help," Steel said. "We're not supporting businesses and we're not handing out money ... We're here to serve the troops and their families."

Steel does not receive compensation for the work he does with H2H, but he is hardly one to complain about it. Steel comes from a family history of volunteers who raised him to believe that a requirement for living is to help others. He credits his late uncle, who dedicated his life to serving others.

"I knew if (my uncle) was going to be at lunch or dinner, I had to start thinking about what I had done to help my fellow human beings in the last 24 hours," Steel said. "(H2H) gives me an opportunity to work with people who care and who are doing wonderful things."

It's a trend that is catching on around the nation.

"The government supports the troops to a much better standard than they did in the past, and they've improved dramatically since 2001," Steel said. "The country is very concerned about its future, and they see this as an opportunity to do something really good for our young people."

Although they only meet once a month, Steel said members of H2H are in constant communication and in touch with members of the military on a daily basis.

New members are always welcome and encouraged to attend monthly meetings.

"We're here to help," Steel said, "and I'm going to do this until I fall over."

For more information about H2H, call (800) 562-2308 or go to: dva.wa.gov.

Laura M. Levering is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16