Chris Stout of Liberty is a veteran’s navigator for United Way of Greater Kansas City, UnitedWayGKC.org. Stout, who was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, served in the Army until injuries sustained in Afghanistan forced him to retire as a corporal. This conversation took place at the United Way call center in Kansas City. Veterans who need assistance should dial 211 and identify themselves as veterans. This will connect them to Stout.
Why did you join the Army?
I was attending UMKC and I discovered that college was just not for me. I had a brother who was doing really well in the Navy, so I thought the military might be good for me and joined up. I loved the Army. It was easy. You always knew what to do, where to be and what to expect every day.
What was your job?
I was in the 82nd Airborne infantry division.
What was the nature of your injury?
I was shot in the ankle and had a crushing injury in the leg and took a round in the hip as well.
Did you still love your job when you were in Afghanistan?
Yes. Even deployed, you still know what to do and what is expected.
The reality is, the money is good and you know the Army will take care of you and your family. You know what you are signing up for. It’s not a bad thing.
My medical care was great. And I loved the culture. It was a sad thing to be 26 and be forcibly retired. Part of the reason I took the job with the United Way is because I struggled with the transition after I got out and I wanted to help other soldiers making that transition.
How did you struggle?
I didn’t really need to work — my wife was a teacher and I qualified for Social Security. But I lacked the financial education to manage my money. All my money came in on the first and it was gone by the 5th or the 10th, and I was praying by the 15th (laughs).
Plus I was wheelchair-bound. Try riding around in a wheelchair all day one day and see how people are constantly trying to do things for you or smiling at you for no reason. Try that when you are 26 and a few months before you were running down a street and you could do everything. So I kind of secluded myself.
Then I came across this group Segs4Vets that provides Segues for veterans. When you get on a Segue, people stop noticing there’s something wrong. They stop wanting to hold the door open for you. They quit thanking you for your service all the time. Not that that’s a bad thing, but you know what I mean.
No, I don’t. I’ve had other vets tell me they don’t like strangers thanking them for their service in airports. Why is that?
As a soldier, you’re on guard all the time, and in an airport you’re especially on guard. Plus a lot of soldiers have PTSD, so to have strangers rushing up to them — it’s not the time or the place.
The other thing is, soldiers just want people to be genuine instead of this rubber-stamped cliche — “Thank you for your service.”
Is there anything else well-meaning people do that bugs vets?
I do a lot of speaking for United Way, and I get people who want to give me a hug after I talk. And that’s just not me. Plus, if I didn’t tell you I was a vet, you wouldn’t know it from looking at me now. I am fully recovered physically, and you wouldn’t be trying to give me a hug if we just met.
When I see it coming, I try to shake somebody’s hand or be otherwise engaged physically to block it.
What is a typical day like for you?
I get a lot of referrals from the Catholic Charities, Salvation Army and the VA. When they are unable to assist vets they send them to me. So I will call and interview the vet about their branch of service, length of service, type of discharge and so on to see what kinds of resources are out there for them.
A lot of times it’s rent assistance. They are down on their luck, maybe between jobs, and they need help to get through to the first of the month when their disability (check) hits. Now it’s starting to get cold and a lot of vets want to get their heat turned back on; they’ve been without it for a few months.
I don’t have hard numbers but I would estimate about 80 to 90 percent are Vietnam and pre-9/11 vets. But most are Vietnam vets. A lot of them have just been homeless for so long, couch surfing and they are ready to piece their lives back together.
And a lot of them have serious medical issues, and they have never gotten hooked into the VA benefits they are entitled to because they can’t find the paperwork they need. Or there was some bureaucratic glitch. When I can help fix a situation like that, that’s a really good day.
How does your job now compare to your job in the Army?
This is the best job I’ve ever had. When I got out, I got a job with H&R Block and they were great. They try to hire vets and I have nothing bad to say about them. I think I just wasn’t done serving yet.