Around 200 people filled the chairs in the American Legion Highland Post banquet room. Some of them ate in silence. Some of them told stories of days gone by. Some of them dug out photos of grandchildren and passed them around the table.
One man bent his head over his plate of food and silently wept.
John Mustain noticed, and when he went to the table, the man’s wife assured Mustain everything was fine.
“When I started to walk away, this old veteran put his hand on my arm. He looked at me and said, ‘I just got to tell you: This is the first time in 40 years I’ve been proud to be a veteran,’ ” Mustain says. “I knew it was a success then. I knew this program was worthwhile.”
This is The Kentucky Veterans of the Year Program, an annual event that exists solely to recognize those Kentucky veterans who are still serving.
From Someone Who’s Been There
Mustain is the current coordinator of veterans services and community outreach for the Epilepsy Foundation of Kentuckiana. He was born in 1958 in Indianapolis and spent his formative years in Madison, Indiana, “three city blocks and one Ohio River” away from Kentucky, he says with a laugh. He can tell his life story in a few minutes flat.
“I had a major motorcycle accident when I was 16. Went into the army at 17. Accidentally killed a person when I was 18, got married when I was 19”—he pauses long enough to give the assurance that his marriage was not a traumatic event, then laughs again. “Had my first child at 20, my second child at 22. Had a parachute accident when I was 20 that ripped my left bicep out, had military experiences that worked with special operators on missile systems. Got out of the service in 1983 and went about 21 years preaching. Moved back up to Indiana in 2004. In 2010, my life turned upside down.”
Mustain pauses briefly. Even though he couldn’t see it in 2010, what happened next would help him relate to others in a way he had never dreamed.
“I started experiencing symptoms I just didn’t understand. I was becoming more and more paranoid, more and more forgetful, more and more unable to focus,” he explains. “By October 2010, I lost my job. By December 2010, I couldn’t leave the house.”
At the urging of his wife, Mustain sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs and was diagnosed with late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder. He responded so well to therapy that the VA asked him to serve again, this time working with other vets. Mustain earned his master’s degree in social work and secured a position with the Epilepsy Foundation of Kentuckiana.
“I found out that a lot of our vets who had serious brain injuries were developing post-traumatic epilepsy,” Mustain says. “They can go 30 and 40 years before they have their first seizure. I related really well to that because I didn’t start experiencing the symptoms of my PTSD for 30 years.”
What Mustain found along the backroads and byways of Kentucky was more than just veterans who had a one-and-done kind of service record. He found that service begins—and lives—in a far deeper place than any branch of the military.
Service of the Heart
Mustain averages 70 hours a week at work. He put in 67,000 miles on Kentucky roads last year.
“During my first year, I was running into all kinds of vets. Not all of them were having issues with seizures,” he says. “I was seeing this pattern of the veterans in Kentucky who were getting out of the military service and, instead of just keeping to themselves and creating their own personal little life after the military, they were actually still serving their communities in one form or another.”
Mustain discovered that those veterans were getting involved in organizations that were helping to feed hungry children in school, volunteering with the Red Cross, and using creative gifts to help others learn how to be expressive and how to heal.
“These are veterans of all wars and in all services. Few of them came home and did nothing. I recognized that and thought, surely there is something we can do to recognize this because, what was the latest news you heard about veterans?” Mustain asks, and then explains that veteran news is usually negative-positive. He means that there is a negative story about a veteran—like veteran homelessness—and then a positive story about an organization that helps veterans.
“Veterans are not all broken people. Some are, and we need to be there for them, but for the most part, veterans are the people who do great things for our communities,” he says. “We need to change that dialogue.”
Mustain sought out a person he knew was good with words, someone who could help him make a difference—Jim Grahn, a southern Indiana newspaper, magazine and communications professional who had spent his entire career in the media.
“I was surprised that there was not already a way to honor veterans who are continuing to serve their communities,” Grahn says. “We talked about how other groups have annual awards, like Woman of the Year, Volunteer of the Year, or Humanitarian of the Year, and how maybe we could build on an idea like those.”
After a brainstorming lunch, the duo knew what was possible. Then, they forged ahead and turned potential into reality.
Post-Service Service Salute
Mustain and a handful of folks started the planning, got the word out about nominations, and then waited. The eligibility criteria for nominations are straightforward: The nominee must be an honorably discharged veteran of the armed services; must be living; must not be currently serving in any branch or component of the military; and must be a current Kentucky resident. The nominations must be no more than 250 words, and nominees will be judged on service to others after discharge.
“Criteria one through four are matters of fact. Criteria five is strictly enforced, so people need to make each word count,” Mustain says. “Criteria six should be the main focus. If a veteran has a Medal of Honor, it cannot be considered in the nomination process. We have a program for that; it is the Kentucky Veterans Hall of Fame. Our judges look at what they have done since they got out of the military.”
Nominee names, military branches, ranks, service medals and any identifying information concerning specific organizations are deleted from each nomination before it is submitted to the judges. The specifics of the service remain, as long as they don’t identify the vet. It is on merit alone that the judges award a number value for each nomination. The number values from each judge are then combined, and whoever receives the highest number wins.
The first year, Mustain received 33 nominations. Out of those, two veterans, one male and one female, were chosen for their exemplary service to the people of their communities.
The 2014 male award recipient was Rev. Dr. James Thurman, an Army veteran who has served as the associate pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Lexington since 1977, is the assistant chaplain at the Fayette County Detention Center and is president of the Fayette County branch of the NAACP. He volunteers with Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the Red Cross.
The 2014 female award recipient was Air Force veteran Lindsay Gargotto, the founder of Athena’s Sisters, “an organization for all military women to use revolutionary expressions to grow in dignity and honor.” Gargotto also works with the Kentucky Center for the Arts and with the children of military families through the University of Louisville’s Center for Promoting Recovery and Resilience Program.
All nominees received certificates, and the winners received trophies, a sash and proclamations from various dignitaries.
“I felt very humbled, as I know there are numerous others who have continued to work to make their communities better after leaving military service,” says Thurman. “Once you have been outside of the U.S. and have seen other, less developed, countries, it makes you appreciate what those who have gone before you have done, so that we can be in the greatest country in the world. Even though we have a lot of problems to deal with, we each can make a significant difference in the communities where each of us live.”
The significant difference is being noticed.
This year, the nominations increased to 50. And interest has been such that the awards venue has moved from the American Legion Highland Post to the Brown & Williamson Club at Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The ceremony is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 9, and will feature Heather French Henry, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, as keynote speaker, along with a few Medal of Honor recipients who are scheduled to speak. Because the program has become a partner with the Department of Defense’s 50th commemorative anniversary of the Vietnam War, every Vietnam vet who is there will receive a commemorative pin given by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“At the banquet, we don’t talk about veteran issues. We don’t do any fund-raising. We center it around the celebration of being a veteran,” Mustain says and then swallows hard with the emotion and pride he feels for the more than 300,000 Kentucky veterans. “We think vets are good people, and we think vets are doing good things.”
“The price our society exacts from its veterans and their families is very high,” Grahn says. “Nobody else in our society is expected to sacrifice their physical and mental health—and maybe their life—spend months and years away from their families, endure hardship, and yet remain positive and productive. We honor the fact that brave men and women are able to withstand all of that and still have a heart of service. That is heroic.”