Fathers. Sisters. Neighbors. Friends. If you live in West Virginia, you know someone who is serving or has served in the military. It’s no surprise that this is so when you consider that so many West Virginians serve in some branch of the military.
Dennis Davis, a native of West Virginia who is Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance and who served in the U.S. Army, can tell you why.
“It is the nature of West Virginians,” said Davis. “We love our state and we love our country. When we are called upon to serve, we do so willingly.”
Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, Adjutant General of West Virginia National Guard, agrees. “It is in the DNA of people who live in the Appalachian Basin to serve. The immigrants who came to West Virginia faced challenges when they came here,” said Hoyer. “As they settled in communities and became successful, they felt a sense of responsibility to serve the nation that gave them these opportunities.”
The West Virginia Archives and History Military and Wartime collection shows that West Virginians, or people who lived in the region that would become the Mountain State, served in conflicts even before the Civil War, including the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.
The Department of Veterans Assistance and the West Virginia National Guard provide services and offer programs that support veterans and present-day military employees.
The West Virginia National Guard includes more than 2,100 Air National Guard personnel, 4,206 Army National Guard and 2,000 federal and state staff. In 2017, the economic impact of the National Guard in West Virginia was $367.9 million. The state received $19 in federal funding for every state dollar invested in National Guard activities.
West Virginia veterans and supported Veterans Assistance programs receive $1.9 billion in federal funding each year that provides services and programs for more than 145,000 veterans. The Department of Veterans Assistance advocates for those services and, through its Veteran Service Officers, helps veterans submit claims and get them approved. That provides services and programs for more than 145,000 veterans in the state.
The National Guard serves the state and nation in ways as diverse as deployment to areas of conflict and disaster to security at Bridge Day and programming at the Bechtel Summit Boy Scout adventure center.
“Today, West Virginia’s National Guard offers much to the men and women who join,” Hoyer said. “We have the best educational reimbursement plan of any of the 54 National Guard organizations in the United States; coupled with the G.I. Bill, it provides our members with exceptional support for continuing education.
“It is not only educational benefits that attract people,” he said. “This is a family business. There are National Guard members whose parents and grandparents served. And, there are young people who thrive on structure and responsibility because of the values and traditions they grow up.”
Hoyer says his family is a good example. One of his sons joined the National Guard, and his service has helped him to move forward to a law enforcement career with the federal government. The other son’s experience in the National Guard gave him experiences that led him to stay in the military, and he will be attending Special Forces school.
The National Guard is involved in diverse activities.
“We work on many levels in our overseas operations,” he said. “In addition to deployment of troops, we work with our NATO partners to offset military challenges and support nations with training and development so that Americans are not the sole military support for Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The West Virginia National Guard responds to emergencies within the United States. “The 54 National Guard organizations function like volunteer firefighters,” Hoyer said. “We offer mutual assistance in times of need. We support other states and they support us.”
Within the state, the National Guard performs multiple functions. At Gov. Jim Justice’s request, the National Guard helped stabilize the state’s corrections system. Members of the National Guard are helping to respond to the drug crisis, working in schools to provide role models and support for young West Virginians whose families are devastated by the crisis.
“The Guard plays a significant role in economic development and diversification,” Hoyer said. “We are helping to build an orchard industry on surface mine sites, bringing long-term use to these areas.”
Bringing federal monies to the state is important to this role, according to Hoyer.
“We do not just go to Washington and ask for money based on our veteran records or current staffing numbers,” he said. “We go prepared with analyses of where there are needs and solutions for how our Army and Air National Guard forces can provide timely, more efficient and cost-effective responses.
“We function as a military base and depot for the state and the Department of Defense,” he said. “It is imperative that we do so that we can succeed in all of our missions.”
The Veterans Assistance Office takes its responsibilities for veterans just as seriously.
“The federal funding that we receive covers operations for four hospitals, 10 clinics, counseling centers, 17 field offices and a cemetery and memorial affairs — all designed to address the health, insurance, education and other needs of our veterans,” said Davis. The Department of Veterans Assistance helps veterans with educational assistance and home loans as well.
One of the programs Davis is excited about focuses on agricultural development. “West Virginia has land and unused farm properties and we are working with the Department of Agriculture to find ways to get veterans into agricultural programs,” he said. “They can start small and grow their farms as they develop their skills.” He said one of the promising programs is beekeeping.
Many veterans are taking advantage of the GI Bill and educational opportunities at state colleges and universities that help them in civilian careers. “Veterans are good small-business owners in professions that allow them to use the skills they learned in the service,” he said. “They have entrepreneurial spirit and are operating businesses from consulting and training services to retail.”
The department is opening new field offices in Wheeling, Teays Valley and Kanawha Valley’s Corridor G. Each office is strategically placed to provide easier access to larger veteran populations. The offices are located near veterans’ clinics, providing one-stop shopping so that veterans can meet with veteran service officers and receive medical services at the same time.
“Our veterans are proud to have served in the military for those of us at home,” Davis said. “That service can change the way you see everything in life and the way you live even after you come home. I encourage people to appreciate the sacrifices they made and respectfully honor their courage.”
The West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History offers additional ways to learn more about the state’s military history.
The West Virginia State Museum features a “West Virginians at War” Discovery Room. This exhibit displays artifacts from the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Artifacts and audio-visual presentations illustrate stories of bravery and heroism in the conflicts and on the home front.
West Virginia Archives and History provides databases and research resources about West Virginia’s military history in the online History Center and through donated collections that include letters, scrapbooks and other written and photographic materials. This section is responsible for Civil War medals for Union soldiers and the Veterans Memorial project to research and write biographies for those included on the memorial.
“It is best for families to keep artifacts and materials that tell family histories,” said Joe Geiger, Archives and History director. “But when the time comes that a family can no longer care for these items or is interested in having them preserved and shared with others, the State Archives and State Museum are proud to be the caretakers for these things.”