CFMT Grantee: Purple Heart Honoree Goes “Around the Clock” to Keep Fellow Vets Connected

Operation Stand Down Tennessee (OSDTN) provides and connects Veterans and their families with comprehensive resources focused on transition, employment, housing, benefits, peer engagement, volunteerism and connection to the community. Engage. Equip. Empower. The organization has received a $50,000 grant from the Middle Tennessee Emergency Response Fund of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to provide emergency financial assistance and case management to veterans impacts by the tornadoes.

The military provides structure. It has a clear chain of command.

Tornadoes, not so much.

Tornadoes strike at will, sometimes in the darkness just after midnight, and leave within minutes, mayhem in their path.

No structure. Just destruction, and death.

Add a COVID-19 pandemic to the mix and, well, too many of us know full well the results.

Consider what retired Sgt. E.J. Hirsch, a Purple Heart veteran, has been faced with at the Nashville-based veterans assistance nonprofit Operation Stand Down Tennessee of late.

EJ Hirsch
 Pictured: retired Sgt. E.J. Hirsch

Hirsch, the organization’s program manager for Call Sign Connect Manager, has established a Facebook group to help reduce isolation and give veterans an online community during these difficult times. He is also responding to Facebook messages — no easy task considering the volume.

“E.J. has been working around the clock to keep Veterans connected and to get them in touch with the right person for their needs,” says Penny Anderson, Chief Development and External Affairs Officer for Operation Stand Down Tennessee.

“He has even loaded his car with food from OSDTN and driven it out to Veterans with no transportation available, so that they wouldn’t go hungry,” she continues. “He’s living proof that Veterans helping Veterans is the best way to improve their outcomes.”

Anderson says Operation Stand Down Tennessee continues to keep the doors open to veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine, with slightly reduced hours, limited in-person staffing, and every recommended precaution in place. Less than 10 staff members are in the building on a given day, and the rest are able to work remotely from their homes.

“Our virtual service numbers are surpassing our in-person numbers for the first time in our history,” Anderson says. “This is gratifying, as it means our Veterans are protecting themselves and their families in quarantine while still receiving services.

“At this time, our federal grant contracts are only reimbursable for in-person services, not virtual,” she continues. “We anticipate this will negatively impact our financial position unless a change of scope can be approved.

“We have been very lucky in that none of our staff members or housing clients have tested positive for COVID-19. We continue to be vigilant in our protocols so that we can keep it that way.

The organization is promoting the availability of tornado relief funding on its social media, in e-blasts, through Veteran-serving partners, and to its Davidson County Veterans Service Organizations.

Hirsch, at the forefront of Operation Stand Down Tennessee’s outreach team, took time to respond to questions from The Community Foundation on April 20:

CFMT: Explain what your job is at the organization and how it has changed since the March tornadoes and the coronavirus pandemic.

OSDTN: “I am project manager that oversees our outreach program, Call Sign Connect. I recently moved from the communications role and still do it to support our development team. Before the tornadoes and COVID-19, most of what I did was act as a first-line interaction with Veterans, their family members, and folks in community that wanted to get involved. I would typically connect them with the right program, resource, or service within our organization. That has changed because of the tornadoes and coronavirus, and we have had to be a bit more creative in finding new resources, solid information on best practices and useful information, and even going to homes of Veterans who are in need.”   

CFMT: Tell us about setting up the Facebook group for isolated veterans and how that has worked out thus far.

OSDTN: “I set up a COVID-19 group on our page as soon as we started to see it impact our ability to stay open for regular hours with the normal staffing. We figured it might be good to create a community that could share information and lean on each other if needed. 

“One major concern, that both my CEO and I share, was that Veterans who are suffering from PTS, MST, or other mental health issues might become even more isolated. We are concerned that this isolation could lead to an increase in Veteran suicide. So, in that group, we’ve done a few buddy checks and let people know they can message us if needed.

“The group has about 58 members. Some are active, and some are not. Veterans have messaged us with questions, which is why I created it. I plan on keeping it up and running until all this passes.”  

CFMT: How did you get proficient in social media? Did that start during your service overseas or has that been a learned skill with the organization?

OSDTN: “My job in the Army was communication. I operated massive antenna that communicated to other antennae that were miles away. I was also a marksman in Iraq, so I really did not do much on social media during that time. 

“I studied mass communication in college. My focus was journalism, with a focus in digital communication. After graduating and working for a magazine and interning at a major newspaper, I learned that I had to adapt to a dying print market to be competitive. So I started doing social media and website work. I also worked in film production, which I use for both our website and social media. I did those things independently. When I started at Operation Stand Down Tennessee in 2017, it all came together and I started using my skill sets together.”  

CFMT: Tell us about loading your car and taking food to hungry veterans. I’m presuming that’s not part of your job description. What’s their reaction when you show up?

OSDTN: “We have been approached by a few Veterans that are unable to leave their homes. I don’t ask why, but I assume they have health issues and are unable to leave to get food items. I have a soft spot for Veterans, so I load up my two-door car with food boxes and donated meats we have in our freezer, and I drive out to their homes.

“It isn’t in my job description, and we typically don’t drive items to the homes of Veterans. For me, I feel like I never let go of the mentality of looking after your buddy, or other Veterans, in this case. It goes back to worrying about their mental state as well. If they are struggling and have no food on top of that, they could go down a dark path. I try to prevent that.”

CFMT: What do you envision life to be like for the veterans you serve in the coming months?

OSDTN: “This is a tough question. I hope they rebound quickly. Part of transition, which I think takes more than just finding a job and working, is finding your place within a community. As they isolate to social distance, they are putting their transition on hold. 

“We will do a huge push to try and get those who need our services to come in. Some of them may have lost their job or have had to put their job search on hold. Others might have transitioned and not had the chance to attend one of our events.

“We will have to ramp up our events to try and encourage folks to get out and interact with each other and the community once we can do so. We are lucky in that our new space is close to being completed. That space has a great community room that is perfect for events. That is super-exciting, because we can do whatever we want because it is our space. 

“We know that our clients will all have their own struggles in rebounding from both the tornadoes and COVID-19. We will do our very best to help navigate through those issues and get them back to where they were before all this started.” 


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