The mission of American Veterans for Equal Rights is “evolving,” to borrow a popular term. Through much of our organization’s 25 year history our central goal has been to fight for the right of LGBT people to serve in the United States military. While that goal has been largely achieved, the mission will continue until Transgender patriots are able to serve just as lesbian, gay, and bisexual people can now serve. And like many of our sister organizations we continue to identify and reform issues and challenges unique to LGBT service members, veterans, and our families. But the overall focus of AVER as a Veterans Service Organization is expanding to encompass the same mission as other VSOs, which is to help veterans access the benefits they have earned, and navigate the very difficult and unfortunately copious labyrinth of VA bureaucracy. One of AVER’s chapters that is providing outstanding service as a Veterans Service Organization is Sacramento Valley Veterans (SVV), located in California’s state capitol.
Pictured Above: The Sacramento Valley Veterans (SVV) representing at the UC Davis Davis Medical Center Veterans, Disabled and Diversity Career and Resource Fair – 14 May 2014 — with Michael D Williams, Ty Redhouse, Gene Silvestri, Kevin Alverson and Viviana Taylor at UC Davis Medical Center.
Sacramento Valley Veterans is an extremely dynamic and active organization with monthly membership and board meetings, as well as weekly leadership meetings. Their yearly calendar consists of a whopping number of almost 100 events, including outreach and staffing at a myriad of events from LGBT Pride to Veterans Resource and Career fairs around the state, and providing speakers for numerous events such as high school and university groups, PFLAG meetings, senior and community centers, VA events, and veteran resource collaborative. SVV has participated in Pride events on local military installations and policy discussions on LGBT specific healthcare issues with the VA.
SVV president Michael D. Williams (US Army 1995-1999) attributes much of the chapter’s success to a core team of board members who each bring unique skills to the organization. The leadership team includes Vice President Ty Redhouse (USAF) whose invaluable knowledge of social media keeps SVV on the cutting edge of electronic communications including web pages, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, all essential tools in reaching out to the vast network of tech savvy younger vets. Chapter Secretary Gene P. Silvestri, (US Army), a disabled transgender veteran, has extensive knowledge and experience in VA documentation and claims processing, as well as invaluable contacts within the VA itself, all assets in helping him assist fellow veterans in navigating the VA system and accessing benefits. Rounding out the team is former Chief Petty Officer Charles Peer (US Navy retired) whose considerable service on the boards of other local organizations as well as his position as editor of Outword Magazine keeps SVV in close touch with Sacramento’s greater LGBT community. Michael himself attributes much of his success as chapter president to his social networking and political activism, which have opened doors to important resources such as elected officials and other LGBT organizations. It doesn’t hurt that the chapter is located in California’s state capitol where lawmakers are readily available.
Pictured Above: The Sacarmento Valley Veterans Chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights prepares to lead the Sacramento Veterans Day Parade.
One of SVV’s most effective efforts is the chapter’s twice monthly Veterans Service Clinic which they host at Sacramento’s Lavender Library, an LGBT resource center and offshoot of the city’s LGBT Center. At these clinics Gene Silvestri and other members of SVV offer one-on-one counseling in helping veterans file initial claims with the VA as well as the increasingly necessary appeals which often follow. SVV has helped veterans with other challenges such as housing and employment, and they help connect veterans with elected officials who have been very effective in streamlining the claims process and helping veterans solve challenges by applying political pressure. SVV has helped LGBT veterans connect with established VSOs and experienced Veterans Service Officers who can be invaluable in working to obtain assistance and upgrade disability claims. Michael reports that some of the VSOs who have been accepting of LGBT veterans are Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA). Such VSOs frequently have offices inside the local VA hospitals and are often the most effective resource in assisting vets to access benefits. Although SVV is open to assisting all vets in need, Michael reports that the vast majority of veterans coming to the chapter for assistance are LGBT.
An exciting opportunity came about last year when the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CALVets) contacted SVV about co-hosting a statewide outreach event for LGBT veterans. SVV’s networking with state VA officials had established them as an important resource for LGBT vets, and the state turned to the chapter as a crucial partner in hosting the first ever California VA forum for LGBT vets. CALVets had hosted a number of statewide events for minority vets including Black and Women veterans. California was taking a step towards recognizing LGBT veterans as a “protected class,” (a designation that remains a major goal for AVER at the federal level) and they turned to SVV for assistance. The first state sponsored CALVets LGBT Military Leadership Forum was held September 26-27 at the University of California Sacramento, with Sacramento Valley Veterans as co-host and AVER as a sponsor of the historic event.
Like many of AVER’s chapters around the nation, Sacramento Valley Veterans fields a military color guard, and the SVV group has had some high profile honors which have produced major visibility for the chapter. In addition to providing color services to many of the state’s LGBT events such as Stonewall Democrats and Sacramento Pride, the SVV color guard has had the honor of serving as lead color guard for the Sacramento Veterans Day Parade since 2011. They became the first LGBT color guard ever to open a ceremony within the California State Capital at the Swearing In ceremony of the State Speaker of the California House of Representatives.
Every chapter of American Veterans for Equal Rights is unique. The priorities and focus of each chapter depend largely on the members of the chapter and how they choose to focus their energy, as well as the region where the chapter is located and the unique challenges that result from differing levels of acceptance towards LGBT citizens. Sacramento Valley Veterans has done a remarkable job of providing services to LGBT veterans while working to create a more just and tolerant society through education and networking. AVER is very proud of SVV’s outstanding achievements. In many ways, SVV represents the future of this organization in a post-ban era. Thank you, SVV, for your dedication to your fellow vets and our greater LGBT community. You lead the way in service. Thank you for lighting our path with steadfast commitment and bold leadership.
Sacramento Valley Vets website: http://www.sacvalleyvets.com
Danny Ingram, Past President
American Veterans for Equal Rights