Last night marked the end of the West Virginia Legislature’s 2018 regular session. After announcing StandWatch.org’s decision to bridge the gap between service and advocacy, we set out to get three legislative initiatives passed. It was a tall order. Most organizations are content to get a single bill through the legislative process. I am thrilled to say that, with some important help, we were able to achieve all three goals. Two of the initiatives were conceived by one of StandWatch.org’s advisors, Medal of Honor recipient, Woody Williams. The other is a program called Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture, which is the brainchild of Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt. These programs will help and honor hundreds if not thousands of veterans across the state, and we are proud to have played a part in their passage.
The resolution to build a Gold Star Family Memorial on the Capitol Grounds was the first piece of paper to be approved by both houses of the legislature this session. Before any monument can be constructed at the Capitol, both the House and Senate have to pass a resolution that permits the Department of Administration to select the location, hash out the specifications, and begin construction. Senate Majority Leader, Ryan Ferns, Senator Ryan Weld, and Senate President, Mitch Carmichael worked directly with Speaker Tim Armstead to make this their first priority. Senators Stollings, Plymale, and Beach were co-sponsors. It took less than 10 days to move through the entire process.
The second initiative that Woody suggested involved placing a voluntary donation box on all DMV driver’s license and vehicle registration forms. The money generated by this program is dedicated to funding veterans hospitals throughout the state. Again, with Ryan Weld’s support as Chair of the Senate Military Committee, and Ryan Ferns’ direct involvement with Speaker Armstead, this bill passed on the last day of the session. Another great win for veterans.
The third initiative that we helped with was Commissioner Kent Leonhardt’s Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture. This program was started in 2012 and has lacked sufficient funding since its inception. Even still, with an annual budget of $7500 they have been able to help over 300 veterans get into farming and change their lives forever. Going into the session Commissioner Leonhardt made fully funding the “Vets to Ag” program his number one priority. We worked with his office to raise awareness about the importance of this program, and with the assistance of Ferns, Weld, and Senator Craig Blair, we were thrilled to find out on that for the first time in the program’s history, the Vets to Ag program is fully funded to the tune of $250,000 a year. They have helped 300 veterans with just $7500 per year. We cannot wait to see what James McCormick and Commissioner Leonhardt are going to do now. It’s going to be amazing.
Even though these successes are something I am personally proud of, they have come with a price. 501c3 organizations like StandWatch are prohibited from engaging in most political activities. Even though we were advocating for issues that are bipartisan, we were advised that, to stay on the safe side, we needed to create a completely separate political organization, a 501c4 called StandWatch America, that would allow us to advocate without restrictions. After we set that up, a company called Mako Medical out of Raleigh, North Carolina donated $10,000 to cover marketing expenses like website hosting and other outreach efforts. It’s worth noting that Mako has over 500 employees and by company policy, reserves half of those positions for veterans. The Mako donation is the TOTAL amount of money that StandWatch America has received to date.
Now, one would think that advocating for Gold Star memorials, veterans hospital funding, and helping veterans with PTSD heal through farming, we would be insulated from today’s political insanity, but that’s not the case. StandWatch has been the target of political attacks, mainly from a small group of Democrats who are resentful that we have worked so closely with the Republican leadership to get these initiatives done. I have no regrets. The fact is the Republicans are in charge of both houses and control all aspects of what gets introduced, moved through the process, and passed into law. Working with these leaders has been my honor. I will not apologize for it. Without their help, we would have failed to achieve anything.
But this fact of political life escapes notice in this highly partisan world. Some were angry that their names weren’t on a bill or resolution (something we have absolutely no control over), with one person even swearing and dropping the f-bomb about the fact that Woody Williams was there, and this person was not recognized, even though he had NO input whatsoever. This individual and his supporters have attacked us, and even gone so far as calling StandWatch America a Russian propaganda outlet, and a right-wing Republican fake news source. We don’t do news of any kind, so I have no idea where any of these accusations come from.
It’s also worth noting that both the resolution and the bills passed both chambers unanimously with support from both parties. But this seems to be lost on those whose only goal is to whip-up controversy, outright lies, and anger for their own political gain. At times, it happens on both sides of the aisle, but in our case, it’s the socialist voice of an angry Democrat who hate us and our initiatives.
But because of these attacks, and the distraction they cause to StandWatch.org’s work with people like Woody to do projects that make communities better, I am resigning as President and CEO of the nonprofit that my friends and I started over two and a half years ago to help veterans. I do not want political partisans to call that work into question. It’s not fair to the volunteers and veterans who have dedicated significant time to the free clinics, and student programs that StandWatch has come to focus on.
Starting next month, Navy veteran James “Buzz” Mason will be taking the reins of StandWatch.org. He’s a great guy and I know he’s going to do awesome things. I will remain part of the board, but won’t provide any guidance on operations, planning, and the programs or initiatives that Buzz develops. I am going to move on and help veterans and their supporters do great things in a different way. I am proud of StandWatch’s work, our relationship with heroes like Woody Williams, and everything we have done since 2015. I look forward to seeing it grow and prosper.