More than 37,000 active duty military personnel live in Colorado. We also boast a veteran population of more than 413,000. That means close to 10 percent of the Centennial State’s 5.3 million residents have served or are serving. Yet, too often, civilians’ only association with this population is through Hollywood films. This conversation series provides a different kind of connection. We regularly sit down with a veteran who’s having a positive impact in his or her community. We’ll talk about their experiences both in the military and after, and highlight the important contributions these valuable men and women make to their communities once they return home. This month, we handed the tape recorder over to Denver journalist Donna Bryson, whose book about Montrose’s Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans, Home of the Brave, comes out in January.
Editor’s Note: These conversations contain mature content and, occasionally, explicit language.
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Terri Wilcox, Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans board chair
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Terri Wilcox took on a big challenge when she stepped in as board chair of Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans (WHAV), a Western Colorado nonprofit that provides comprehensive support to former service members making the sometimes fraught transition to civilian life. Founded by Montrose jeweler Melanie Kline in 2011, the nonprofit (which was originally named Welcome Home Montrose) maintains a volunteer-run drop-in center where vets can get a cup of coffee along with counseling and employment training and guidance. WHAV has even organized internships for young wounded veterans. Every other year, the organization hosts an outdoors festival that brings former service members from across the country to hunt and fish near Montrose. Following the suggestion of one of those veterans, Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans helped spur the development of an adaptive white water park. Kline retired from the organization last year, leaving it in the hands of Wilcox and executive director Emily Smith. This is Wilcox’s story.
5280: Did you always plan to join the military?
Terri Wilcox: I was born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana. I knew from early on that I wanted to serve our country in some way. I didn’t necessarily think it would be military service. But when I was in college at Southwestern Louisiana State University, in my sophomore year, I had a life-defining moment. My roommate was my neighbor where I grew up and she was a year older than me. She joined a sorority and asked me to come and pledge. I wasn’t accepted; I didn’t have what they thought they wanted in a person for their sorority. The Reserve Officer Training Corps was having their pledge of sorts at about the same time, and I thought, Well let me go see what they’re all about. I immediately felt like part of the family in the Air Force ROTC. And the rest was history.
Do you think coming from a small town shaped you?
I was a Louisiana swamp girl. I think it did shape me. My first assignment was from southern Louisiana all the way to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. It was a wonderful journey for me. I loved every minute of my military service. Now they weren’t always happy. But I felt like I was with a team performing a mission to keep our country free. I knew where I belonged in the military. I did my mission so that others could do theirs.
When I joined, I was what they called a personnelist—like HR, human resources. I did tactical, day-to-day human resources-type work. But your core Air Force specialty code—or your MOS, military specialty code—does not define you. We have special duty assignments and we deploy and train every day. So while I was a personnelist, I did so much more. I did training. I worked at squadron officers school, I did the curriculum development there. I was a commander. I had a command tour where I was in charge of airmen and officers’ morale and welfare. I deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia, for a short period doing casualty reporting and accountability. I worked at a Joint Forces Staff College National Defense University. I was at Special Operations Command U.S. Joint Forces Command for three years in Norfolk, Virginia.
Was your decision to retire a difficult one?
It was. My husband had been sacrificing for me for the past 10 years. He retired from the Air Force in 1999 and followed me on my assignments for 10 more years. He had good jobs, but he had to do all our moves. I was always deployed or on some type of trip when we had permanent change of station. Spouses have to do a lot. We’d been away from family for a long time. This is where my husband, Chris, was raised. And we love it here. Montrose is a wonderful community. When you think about it, my husband and I have spent more of our lives in the military than in our hometown with our family. I left home when I was 21, served in the military for twenty-five-and-a-half years, and then retired and moved here. Our families had [to make] a lot of sacrifices for our service to our country. I wasn’t there for the births of my nieces and nephews. When my mom got sick, I took time off to be with her, but I wasn’t there as much as I would have loved to have been. My sister had to take the brunt of anything that came up because I was serving our country. They were not upset by that. They knew that I had this mission to do. But there comes a time in your life when you finally realize it’s time for you to put your family first.
I’ve spoken to other women who served and who often don’t see themselves as veterans. What about you?
To me it was all about being a military member first. Being an airman first, then an individual. It’s about knowing our mission, trusting our team, knowing that we all have the same goals in mind. If there were anything [that makes me like I’m not a veteran], it would be that I would have wanted to have been on the front line with my fellow service members. I feel no resentment or anything. I want them to know that I was willing to sacrifice my life for our country just as any other service member would.
How did you get involved with the Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans?
I was fortunate enough to be hired with the city of Montrose as their human resources director. Bill Bell, the city manager, was on the board of directors for what was then called Welcome Home Montrose. I asked him if he needed any help with his additional duties and reminded him about my military service. And he asked me to join the board of directors of the Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans.
You’ve taken over the board from the organization’s founder. How do you make that transition to being a new kind of leader?
You simply have to realize that I can’t compare myself to her (founder Melanie Kline). She’s brilliant. She had a passion, and she started this organization from the ground up. Our goal when we transitioned from her leadership to our new board was to focus on the sustainability of the organization. Now, with Melanie Kline retired, every year we have a strategic plan and we base our actions on that strategic plan. That couldn’t happen without a good board of directors, an active board of directors, and an active executive director.
Do you see WHAV as a national model for how veterans and civilians can work together?
I do. In fact, for a while Melanie and Emily were traveling to different parts of the state to talk about our model to different organizations that might want to start something like what we’re doing. It takes a lot of commitment. The community of Montrose and the surrounding area have been great advocates and great supporters.
Is there anything you’d like to say to veterans who might be struggling with the transition to civilian life?
When I first got out of the military, at first I tended to come off a little formal and standoffish. I had to learn to come in to work and say good morning and smile and do a little bit of small talk. In the military, we were always focused on mission. Even in meetings, we had a lot of camaraderie and teamwork, but it was all about the mission. I get a kick out of it sometimes when folks tell me, “Hey, Terri, you’re coming to a small town now. The pace is a lot slower; you’re going to have to take a deep breath and slow down a little bit.” In actuality, my military background has led me to this—the training, the level of trust, all of the military bearing—all of that has prepared me to be a productive member of society. From military to civilian, it definitely is a transition. I would offer to those who are getting out: “Take a deep breath. You can do it.”