Retired Master Sergeant Sandra Brownlee once trained young soldiers to think of themselves as “superheroes.”
“We’re taught that way for a reason,” she told me. “So that when it’s time to go out and defend this country or any other country, we don’t lose focus.”
Brownlee believes that those who have completed their service remain capable of anything. That informs her new vocation of helping fellow veterans reintegrate into civilian life.
In the summer of 2016, a nonprofit Brownlee founded opened its first drop-in center in Griffin, Georgia. Her group, which she calls Discovering Soldiers Potential II, collaborated with an older and larger veterans support organization called the Genesis Prevention Coalition to connect those who have served to counseling, employment, legal, housing and other services. Last year Brownlee opened a second center in her hometown of LaGrange, Georgia. The resource centers also house small libraries, conference rooms and computer classrooms.
Brownlee joined the Army right after graduating from high school in LaGrange and served 27 years, including a deployment as a medic in the 1990s Gulf War. She jokes with her mother that “I was 18 years old when I left your house. The military raised me more than you did.”
The Army trained her to save lives on the battlefield and later as medical inspector general, a quality assurance role, at Fort Hood, Texas. But she missed out on experiences that build skills for civilian life. Soldiers, for example, don’t usually shop for insurance or make their own travel arrangements. Brownlee never learned to use Facebook.
She thought she would travel more, perhaps start another career after she retired in 2007. Instead, she felt depressed and directionless.
“What did I give 27 years of my life for to be here?” she remembers asking herself. “What am I supposed to do?”
Then, men and women who had relied on her while they served together began to seek her out. They thought she might be able to help with tasks they found daunting, such as navigating the bureaucracy that stood between them and Veterans Affairs benefits.
The first old comrade who called wanted to meet at a Dunkin’ Donuts in the Atlanta area. The chain’s outlets soon became her preferred office -- they aren’t pretentious and the WiFi is free. Brownlee would come with her computer and portable printer and get to work.
The people she knew were soon referring strangers. Brownlee said her experience as an inspector general gives her a special facility for translating medical paperwork into terms fellow veterans can understand.
She held so many meetings in Griffin, she said, that “the talk around town was, ‘There’s this lady at the Dunkin Donuts who’s helping people.”
“I realized that no one’s properly transitioning us into this new world,” she said. “Someone needs to show us our potential the second time around.”
She had discovered a new calling. Or perhaps an extension of her military focus.
“I do this because I’m trained to help people.”
And she found many others wanted to help. Griffin town officials gave her space in an old county courthouse that was no longer in use. It was on the historic registry, but dilapidated. Home Depot provided the supplies and volunteers the labor to get the space in shape. A church donates $500 a month to help pay utilities and other expenses.
Brownlee’s all-volunteer staff includes a former college dean of student affairs, a former state medical aid official and a retired one-star general she once helped file a medical claim. The general comes to the Griffin center twice a week to help others. A Vietnam vet shows up regularly offering pecans and fruit from his garden.
“I want people to stop thinking that veterans are a charity case. There’s no pity in this,” Brownlee said.
She’s seen veterans and those who never served work together to help former fighters get housing, jobs and become part of the community.
“That’s how it should be,” she said.