Swords to Plowshares: 50 years of vets helping vets

Swords to Plowshares: 50 years of vets helping vets

May 2024 | Special Projects

The legacy of Swords to Plowshares (Swords) is as illustrious as it is long. The organization was established in San Francisco in 1974, by six Vietnam veterans who wanted to help their peers navigate the challenges of healing their trauma, re-entering civilian life, and leveraging the benefits due them from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

Fast forward 50 years, and Swords’ executive director Michael Blecker, himself a Vietnam veteran, recently attended the 2024 State of the Union address as the guest of Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, in recognition of Swords’ accomplishments and advocacy on behalf of all U.S. veterans. Koret’s Veterans Initiative, launched in 2019, focuses on supporting returning service members through organizations that specialize in addressing key barriers that veterans face and helping them lead fulfilling lives.

Swords was founded in 1974 by six Vietnam veterans who wanted to help other veterans re-enter civilian life and obtain their VA benefits. Executive Director Michael Blecker is pictured above marching in a Welcome Home Parade in 1985.
Swords executive director Michael Blecker is a Vietnam veteran. He and Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi have worked with each other—and with the VA—on veterans’ issues over many years.

Our recent grant to Swords supports the organization’s new drop-in center in Oakland, focused on engaging with vets in the East Bay. We recently had the opportunity to ask two of Swords’ ambassadors extraordinaire for their insights and perspectives.

Colleen Murakami is Swords’ chief development officer. She keeps an illustration of a vet named Mike behind her desk, a permanent reminder of the potential, and the vulnerability, of Swords’ clients. Long-time board member Del Seymour is a Vietnam veteran, a former Swords client, and a staunch advocate for veterans’ rights. He is also the founder of Code Tenderloin, a San Francisco nonprofit run by people with lived experience, aimed at helping folks in underserved communities get back on their feet through employment. We were curious to hear how the challenges facing veterans have evolved since the early days of Swords, how Swords’ ongoing activism has led to changes at the national level, and what the next hurdles are. Our wide-ranging conversation reinforced the importance of community for veterans.

Koret's Veterans Initiative

Koret has dedicated $2.9 million to veterans since 2019

“It’s important that we create opportunities to maximize veterans’ potential, and many veterans have great potential that has been interrupted. More and more, we’ve become aware of the obstacles returning veterans face in employment, medical care, and rejoining their community. We hope to achieve better health outcomes, more and better jobs, and a better sense of community among and between veterans. Our grants aim to give veterans a helping hand in the right direction.” — Michael Boskin, President, Koret Foundation

 

KF: Let’s start by talking about the challenges people face as new veterans. It is often described as a transition, but this seems too gentle a term.

DS: Putting on a uniform changes you as a person—you become a different creature. The Department of Defense spends 90 days to make us soldiers, but zero days to make us citizens when we get out. There has got to be a priority in the services to transition you to someone who now won’t get a steady paycheck until you get a job, who needs to learn how to feed yourself—which you haven’t done for four or five years, and before that you were probably with mama. You probably have to learn how to buy a car—because for four or five years, you were transported everywhere. You have to learn how to get a credit score, and how to treat a woman or a man as a partner. How do you talk to your partner about why you wake up in the middle of the night, literally hitting the wall? Swords has counselors and programs to help vets with all of their needs. Ideally, the Department of Defense would help vets prepare for adult civilian life before they stop soldiering.

CM: I think that Mike, whose photo reminds me every day of the need for the work Swords does, is a classic example. He did a couple of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he had a lot of mental health issues when he got back. He went through our transitional housing program, enrolled in school, and he decided to intern as a counselor for fellow vets. I reviewed his application to Columbia University to go on for a Masters in social work, and he went on to run a vet center to counsel his peers. But, ultimately, Mike lost his battle with his internal demons. His story breaks my heart. The thing is that “successfully” reintegrating to civilian life is complicated, and the trauma of war and service is lasting even when veterans learn to cope. I’ve noticed that among vets, giving back to others and continuing service once back in their communities definitely seems to help heal their invisible wounds—at least in part. I think our job though is to make sure they don’t lose sight of their own needs, and the need to keep working at healing.

KF: What is Swords’ approach to engaging with clients, or prospective clients, where they are?

DS: I refer a lot of people to Swords confidently, because whatever a vet is going through, we can handle your needs. We do everything in-house. We don’t really refer clients from Swords anywhere else, except maybe the VA medical center. That said, when I see a messed up vet living on the street, they may not be ready for services. There are many reasons why someone may not feel ready, and there is no reason to guilt-trip someone for not accepting services. I myself was referred to Swords 32 years ago, by George Gibbs and his wife, who ran the healthcare program for homeless vets—after I had turned to my addiction for the second time.

CM: Many folks who have served come back to very little opportunity. It’s essential to understand and respect the needs of the community, and there is no single approach to care. Everybody needs something different. And in this space of serving those most underserved, especially now, nobody has all the answers. That’s why we need to form rich partnerships, to learn what other providers are doing—in terms of research, philanthropy and fundraising, and volunteerism. It really takes everybody working together to keep up and adapt. Fifteen years ago, could we know that we would have such a crisis of fentanyl? Four years ago, could we know that we would go through a pandemic? 

Outreach coordinator Dennis Johnson (left) takes to the streets of Oakland to spread the word about Swords’ services and sponsored housing opportunities. A formerly unhoused veteran himself, Johnson connects with other veterans on several levels.
Swords is dedicated to meeting veterans where they are—and helping them get wherever they’re going next.
The Jon W. Paulson Veterans Community in San Francisco’s Presidio provides a permanent affordable and supportive home to 108 older veterans, allowing them to age in place—and in community.
Community organizer Bilal Mustafa (far left) works at Swords’ permanent supportive housing in San Francisco.

KF: Speaking of change, Swords has grown tremendously as an organization. Can you give us a sense of how it functions today, and how your services have expanded?

CM: We have decades of experience and institutional knowledge. We are now a team of 200 people, serving veterans 24/7. About 25% of the staff are veterans, including all of our outreach staff working out on the streets. We take a lot of time training our forward-facing staff in motivational interviewing techniques and in trauma-informed care. It’s a priority to uphold our roots of compassionate care and cultural humility, and to help people understand ‘veteran culture.’ We have developed a Combat to Community training that we offer for free to groups, including the police, social workers, and lawyers, and of course to our staff. We’ve done an excellent job of reducing the number of unhoused veterans and creating a comprehensive system of services and options. We currently have 500 vets living in Swords-subsidized permanent supportive housing. We have provided legal services from the very beginning, and I think this commitment sets us apart. 

KF: We know that your focus for direct services has always been the Bay Area. In what ways can Swords advocate systemically for veterans? 

CM: We do have national impact, thanks in no small part to the tenacity—and humility—of Michael Blecker, our executive director. He co-founded the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in 1990, the California Association of Veteran Service Agencies in 1995, and the Coalition of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans in 2007. In 1979, Swords won one of the first PTSD cases in the US. The affected vet was actually Michael Blecker. Swords has a long history of providing strategic guidance, advocacy tools, and technical assistance to other organizations because that’s what we need to do, in order to scale our impact in the ways that can bring about change.

DS: Swords is definitely a model for many other organizations nationally. I go to a lot of meetings in Washington DC, including the National Alliance for Homelessness. I’ve testified in congressional halls, and attended national homeless vet conferences representing Swords. The VA is being more collaborative, and service organizations such as Swords are perceived as partners with the VA.

  • Swords Services and Successes: 5 Decades of Dedication

    2024 – Serves over 3,100 clients per year in the Bay Area and passes the 500-mark in placing veterans into permanent housing owned by the organization.

    2023 Establishes a drop-in center in Oakland, to serve the East Bay veterans community.

    2016 Leverages their expertise to advocate on a national level for granting veterans access to benefits, including VA healthcare.

    2010 – Launches their Veterans Pro Bono Program, connecting veterans with free legal support in accessing VA benefits and applying for military discharge upgrades.

    2000 – Opens the country’s first veteran-specific permanent supportive housing site. Located in the Presidio, the buildings were renovated from Army barracks to hold 108 units for unhoused veterans living with disabilities and PTSD.

    1995 – Swords cofounds the California Association of Veteran Service Agencies to improve services for California’s veterans and educate our communities.

    1990 – Cofounds the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, pressuring the VA to open its doors and allocate funds for community-based services to finally welcome Vietnam veterans home.

    1988 – Establishes its first transitional housing program with the purchase of a housing site to operate in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

    1979 – Wins one of the first PTSD cases in the US. Advocacy rapidly extends to justice work regarding the effects of Agent Orange. Swords attorneys develop the Agent Orange Self-Help Guide, which still helps veterans today access lifesaving medical treatment. 

    1978 – The VA certifies Swords to represent veterans seeking their benefits—the first organization to be thus recognized since the aftermath of World War II.

    1977 – Draws the attention of then-VA Secretary Max Cleland.

    1974 – Six Vietnam veterans found Swords to Plowshares, to help their peers access benefits and re-enter civilian life.

Army veteran Shirley Brown lives in supportive housing in Oakland. She learned about Swords’ services and community from the Swords outreach team.

 

KF: Accessing benefits is more complex than many civilians realize. Can you tell us a bit about “discharge status” and the gray areas regarding eligibility for benefits?

CM: Yes, this gets back to the importance of our legal services. We have always had our doors open to veterans who were basically ‘discarded’ by the Department of Defense from their military service for a variety of reasons and labeled other than ‘honorable’ in their service. Going back to Swords’ roots in the 70s, we reached out to veterans in jails, and on the streets, because we knew that the Vietnam generation was disproportionately kicked out with what’s called ‘bad paper.’ There are degrees or shades of ‘bad paper,’ which shouldn’t be confused with a dishonorable discharge, which is quite rare. Bad paper jeopardizes a vet’s access to the benefits they deserve, and in some cases the benefits they need to address the very reason they got kicked out – typically mental health care. So some of our justice work is powerful in restoring tangible benefits and also restoring honor and dignity.

KF: Do veterans face particular challenges in terms of finding meaningful work?

DS: There are some occupational titles in the services that are transferable, but not many. Tech jobs are transferable, and Swords has developed some excellent contacts in the Bay Area for referring vets with these skills. If you were an aircraft mechanic or an automotive mechanic, that’s transferable. But most people were infantry and support. When you are in the service, you only have to listen to the person who has one more star than you. You say Yes sir, no sir. And then you get out and get a job in a fast-food place, and you have a 17-year-old supervisor telling you how to cook a burger. That causes problems for our vets in the workforce, because of how we were trained. This gets back to what I mentioned earlier, about the need for ‘transition training,’ to help vets adjust back into productive civilian life.

KF: If Swords could expand your services, what are your personal visions for what you’d like to work on next?

CM: My short answer is to take care of the seniors who are highly vulnerable and to take care of those who need a lawyer. If we could triple our attorneys on staff, we would. There is a terrible shortage of attorneys with expertise in discharge upgrades and the restoration of veteran benefits. We have self-help guides on our website, and we have a long-standing training partnership with Practising Law Institute. Swords attorneys developed the Agent Orange Self-Help Guide, which still helps vets today to access lifesaving medical treatment.

DS: It’s great that the VA is opening opportunities to come and get your claim, but the government seems to make it so easy to surrender to a benefit check for the rest of your life. If you’re 30 or 40 years old, if you are mentally rehabilitated—PTSD is not a death sentence—you can have meaningful work. Case managers should be working to restore this person to have a full life, not just to get by, but to be well paid, to be able to go on vacation. The rehabilitative industry is still comfortable compensating someone, rather than returning them to a typical life.