$3 million awarded to Connect Community Village, as announced at Salute to Valor dinner

May 17—A night to celebrate, honor and remember local veterans turned into a night to celebrate the accomplishments of the hard work of a dedicated civilian.

The 2024 Salute to Valor dinner, hosted by Connect Community Village (CCV), not only presented plaques to three accomplished veterans, it became the center of attention itself when State Senator Rick Girdler announced to the crowd that CCV was to receive $3 million in the next couple years to help fund its tiny home transitional housing village project.

While much of the spotlight for that announcement was shining on CCV President Virginia Dial, the woman herself was quick to reflect that light back onto others.

"I have always said, and will continue to say, this is not about me," Dial said upon being presented a trophy of appreciation from the CCV board of directors. "This is about our veterans and our community, and I have always said I will forever, each and every day, give God the glory for it, because this is his vision. We are just simply the hands and feet."

In announcing the funding, Girdler stressed to the audience that it was not easy to receive funding from the Kentucky Legislature's budget. He said he had encouraged Dial to ask for funding, but warned her that it was very difficult to get approval from his fellow state lawmakers.

When asked to choose three potential projects from his area to receive funding, Girdler said Dial's was the third on his list.

"I thought, 'It ain't going to happen,'" he told the crowd. "... Even when it came down, I was afraid to tell Virginia 'yes.' I really was. Scared to death to tell her, because I didn't want to hurt her feelings. I didn't want to tell her, 'Yeah, we got it.' And I was reading (Senate Bill 1) for myself, saying, 'I don't know how in the world they got this.'"

Pulaski County Government will be the pass-through agency for the funding, and County Judge-Executive Marshall Todd explained to the crowd that Dial was one of the first people who met with him when he was elected to the position nearly two years ago — six months before he even took office.

"She brought this project to me and said, 'We're going to do this.' And I said, 'That's really interesting. It'd be a great program for our veterans. How are we going to do this?'"

Dial's response, Todd said, was that she was going to hold fundraisers, ask for donations and "pray a lot."

"And here we are," Todd said.

The tiny home project began as a dream in 2022, and grew to seeing CCV purchase a 20-acre piece of land by 2023.

The organization's vision is to create the Bluegrass Veterans Ranch, a place that will eventually see 25 tiny houses that will be "designed specifically to meet the needs of our veterans to successfully transition from their military service to a life within their civilian community," according to CCV.

The hope is to help veterans who are homeless or struggling with mental issues or addiction. The ranch will eventually host the veterans in a community that will allow them to work on a communal farm, take classes, learn skills and even manage a general store.

Such programs would be beneficial to veterans, according to Dr. Anthony Dotson, because of the unique challenges facing veterans upon returning to civilian life after leaving the military.

Dotson, a retired Lt. Colonel with the U.S. Army, spoke at the dinner about what he called the "E's of Transition" — rather than the "ease of transition."

Those E's were Experience, Expectation and Environment.

In discussing experience, Dotson said, the experiences of veterans can be widely varied depending upon how they served.

"The rule of thumb is that the further removed that experience is from civilian life, the bigger that gap — the more difficult that transition," he said. That's especially true for those who experienced combat, but even those who served in times of peace can have difficulty returning to civilian life, because "living the military culture, of which you were socialized into out of high school, presents it's own unique challenges. Especially if you were a part of that culture for a very long time."

The military also changes a person's expectations for what will come after leaving service, he said. "Unfortunately, the military does a great job of raising expectations, telling our exiting military members that they are all college material, or that everything they've ever done in the military is worth college credit," he said. Or, even that employers will fight over them to give them jobs.

"As most of you know, the reality of the course does not line up with those expectations, so veterans get discouraged and depressed. They may turn to alcohol or drugs," he said.

That leads what happens within a veteran's environment, he said. "Environment is the only 'E' that we as a community can change. Simply through education and by increasing our understanding of the military culture, the challenges that come with that culture. If we create more inclusive environments, our veterans will be more successful."

During Thursday's dinner, which took place at the Center for Rural Development, Representative Shane Baker was on hand to present plaques of appreciation to three local veterans:

* Buck Sergeant Glen Walker Cummins, a 97-year-old WWII Army vet.

* CW3 Sherry Fitzgerald Hardy, a U.S. Army veteran and Pulaski County High School graduate of 1987, who has served several places around the world, including Iraq and Korea.

* Lt. Colonel Steven Todd Conway, who served with the U.S. Army National Guard, and who has received several medals including the Bronze Star and Army Commendation medals.

Also receiving recognition was the late Somerset-Pulaski County EMS EMT Chastian McWhorter, who was killed on April 1 in a wreck while transporting a patient. McWhorter's father, Dennis McWhorter, and wife, Elizabeth McWhorter, accepted a plaque in his honor from EMS Chief Steven Eubank.

The evening's main speaker was comedian Bobby Henline, who bills himself as "The Well Done Comedian."

Henline is a retired U.S. Army soldier who was severely burned and injured when a vehicle he was in was attacked while he was in Iraq. Henline also lost his left hand due to the attack. The four other people in his vehicle were killed.

Despite turning to comedy to cope with his situation, Henline admitted that he had thought about suicide in the past.

"I didn't want to be here," he told the crowd. "I used to pray to God every night to take me. I prayed for Him to take me because I was useless."

He said the weirdest part about that was the fact that he was even praying to God, as he said that before the attack he had been an atheist.

Henline said that programs such as the veterans village will help veterans struggling with PTSD and other issues.

He told veterans in the audience who were struggling to ask for help, "Don't give up. You're here for a reason."

Carla Slavey can be reached at cslavey@somerset-kentucky.com