Maine native Steven J. SanPedro, state commander of the Maine Veterans of Foreign Wars, says that of all the things he learned in the military, one thing stands out: Different people process their experiences in different ways, but showing vulnerability can be a source of strength.
"When I was over there in Desert Storm, we lost seven guys," he said. "With that I saw that everybody dealt with it differently. Some people got sad, some people told jokes and stories and remembered the good times, and some people got quiet."
Burly and athletic, SanPedro says he still has bad days when memories haunt him, but he considers himself lucky because he doesn't have nightmares or become violent. But he says he learned a profound lesson in leadership in the face of that loss at war, that being "strong" doesn't always mean hiding your emotions. At the time, he worried his soldiers would perceive him as weak if he shared what he was feeling.
"Here I am the First Sergeant and everybody's looking to me to be the rock," he said. "But I felt the same way they did. I felt disappointed, I felt bad, I felt angry at the situation, and the disappointment I felt was in myself. I thought, 'I can't let my soldiers see that.'"
But his own commander challenged him, saying, "Don't you think your soldiers want to see that?"
"So I let people know what I felt, and he was right," SanPedro said. "It was powerful."
Since then, SanPedro has brought that willingness to dig deep into his emotions to his work with the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, a veterans organization that stipulates that all its members have served in combat.
SERVED from 1988-2008 in the U.S. Army; achieved the rank of Engineer Company first sergeant.
RECEIVED the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Ribbon, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Iraqi Campaign Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, NCO Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Kuwait Liberation Medals, Sapper Tab, Air Assault Badge, Master Parachutist Badge, Pathfinder Badge, Meritorious Unit Commendation Award, Army Superior Unit Award and the Bronze Order of the DeFluery.
The VFW is making efforts to evolve from its reputation as an organization mainly serving older veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam who want to socialize almost exclusively with each other, to an organization increasingly interested in connecting veterans to their communities.
The organization also does the nitty gritty work of helping veterans receive benefits from the federal Veterans Administration, working closely with the Veterans Hospital in Togus, for example, or medical centers in other areas when specialized needs arise. The VFW works to ensure paperwork is complete and represents members through the process.
"We have a lot of people who do these claims on their own and they don't have the success they would if they went through these services," SanPedro said. "We know who to talk to. The other thing that we do is not only work to try to get your benefits, but also fighting for legislation to be sure that you get your benefits."
He said he salutes the entire Maine delegation in Congress for their support of veterans, and notes that VA officials in Maine work closely with the VFW and other organizations to get things right. "It's one area that is bipartisan. Democrats, Independents, Republicans, they're all in," he says. "They understand how important it is to get what we were promised for giving our time and making our sacrifices. We go through what most people will never experience. Veterans come home with things they didn't leave with."
SanPedro has held a number of positions in the VFW and serves on various committees there. He is keenly interested in bringing veterans to the forefront of their communities, to foster connection and understanding between civilians and the military. He's a fan of even the small gestures: having veterans sponsor a local baseball team, for example, and going to the games.
"When I came home from Desert Storm, the post commander was ready to sign me up, but I wasn't active until I retired," he said. "What drew me to get more involved in the VFW was that I felt a void, going from the military and being responsible for the men and women who served under me, to nothing. The VFW gave me a purpose again, to serve veterans and their families and work with their communities."