These veterans are bringing about positive change with cardboard signs
The CFT has nothing to do with combat, Kuwait isn't a real deployment, not every Marine is a rifleman, stop piggybacking off the XO—every service member has thought these things in some form at one point or another. You may have even said it aloud to a buddy. Putting a military spin on Dude With a Sign, Veteran With A Sign takes these thoughts that we have all had and actually says them.
VWAS is an Instagram page that started in March 2020 as a writing project by a
f̶o̶r̶m̶e̶r̶ Marine named Zach. He served two tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman and held every position in a Marine infantry squad up to squad leader. "GWOT was hot and COIN was cool," Zach said as he recalled the intensity of combat operations over a decade ago. After separating from the Marine Corps, Zach continued to support his brothers and sisters in arms working for Centerstone, a nonprofit national network that offers essential behavioral healthcare to veterans. Like most veterans, Zach started following military memes as a way to connect with the community. However, he found that most of the memes were the same; heavy handed, punching down, and generally negative in nature. He decided to try something different.
As quarantines went into place across the country and people went internal both literally and on the internet, Zach saw an opportunity to test out his idea and seized it. His first sign read, "Take motrin Drink water Change your socks." This military cure-all was followed by other popular sayings like "Hurry up and wait" and "Standby to standby." VWAS's posts are meant to help veterans with a type of humor that serves as a common language across the services. "Everything's with a wink and a smile," Zach said. However, the community was slow to catch on. The number of followers was low and Zach found that people just weren't getting the joke. "It was annoying," he recalled. By May, he wondered if he shouldn't just shut the whole thing down. However, seemingly overnight, the community got the joke.
Early on, Zach began consulting with his Marine Corps buddy Jay. The two served together in Afghanistan with Zach becoming Jay's squad leader on their last deployment. "We stayed in touch after the Marines," Jay said, "but we went from good friends to best friends with VWAS." While working toward a business degree, Jay helped to direct the social media strategy of the page and grow its followership by tagging friends, sharing posts, and trying to line up just the right hashtag. When Zach considered shutting it down, the page was hovering around 600-800 followers. The next day, it had jumped to 1,200. In a week, it more than doubled to 2,500. After a week and a half, VWAS had over 10,000 followers. "We found a common unified voice for the page," Jay said.
Zach (left) and Jay (right) hold signs written by the other (veteranwithasign)
As the page grew, so did its message. Zach and Jay realized the social responsibility that had been placed on them and crafted their posts accordingly. While they still made humorous signs like "Mortarmen Are Infantry That Can Do Math", they also used their platform to bring attention to serious topics with signs like "Text Your Buddies…It Could Save A Life" and "Where Is Vanessa Guillén??" The two also carefully crafted the identity of the page with the character of the Warfighter. Wearing OD green skivvies, black sunglasses, and a hat, the Warfighter persona aims to focus attention on the message of the sign while also representing all types of veterans. "Anyone who puts on the uniform is fighting the war," Jay said. From S1 and supply to mechanics and logisticians, "everybody is the warfighter in their own way." Zach says that the concept was inspired by the 2006 film V for Vendetta, in which a masked man fights against a fascist tyrannical government. V's face, hidden by a Guy Fawkes mask, is never seen in the film and the mask becomes a symbol of freedom and rebellion against the oppressive regime. Jay reinforced this idea when he talked about donning the skivvies, hat, and shades to hold up a sign. "In that moment, I'm the Warfighter."
Expanding the VWAS community, Zach and Jay started taking suggestions from followers who had a message that they wanted to share. Working with Zach and Jay to craft and home the message, the follower would then don the Warfighter outfit, assume the identity, and hold up their sign for the world to read. One such collaboration was with a veteran and former law enforcement officer who goes by the Instagram name donutoperator—the sign read, "Military Experience Doesn't Equal Law Enforcement Experience." Another major expansion for VWAS came when Tim Kennedy shared a post in which Zach held up a sign reading, "No One Hates Successful Veterans Like Veterans" while his friend held one reading, "He Sucks".
"Wives aren't the only ones wanting to be called by rank" (veteranwithasign)
"There's a current cultural problem with the veteran community. It feels as if we eat our own," Kennedy said in his sharing of the post. "We need to be supporting each other. We need to back each other." While Zach and Jay hope to continue to grow the page as a forum of free speech, there's no room on VWAS for negativity. The page receives dozens of DMs and comments on a daily basis, and while Zach and Jay like to respond to all of them, they simply ignore the constant suggestions to do signs bashing on veteran-owned apparel or coffee companies.
"That's just being a bully," Jay said, "and no one likes a bully."
On the other hand, many DMs to the page come from concerned friends looking for resources to provide to battle buddies who they think might be suicide risks. Zach and Jay take the time to identify the most appropriate and effective resources and pass the information on with best wishes. "That's what this is all about," Zach said, "helping veterans laugh more and hurt themselves less." While veteran suicides have gone up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, VWAS wants to do more than just acknowledge the problem or point fingers at the VA. "That doesn't solve anything," Zach said. "Instead, I look at it like, 'They're doing what they can do and we're doing what we can do.'"
Doing 22 push-ups for 30 days on Facebook can be a good way to bring awareness to the problem of veteran suicide, but there is a simpler course of action that addresses the problem directly. Call your buddies. Take the time to talk, catch up, and ask how they're doing. Let them know that you care about them and are always there for them. The feeling of loneliness and hopelessness that tragically brings so many veterans to take their own lives can be combated with a phone call from a friend.
Be that friend.
Here are some resources designed to prevent veteran suicide:
Veterans Crisis Line—1-800-273-8255 and press 1
Veterans Crisis Line for deaf or hard of hearing—1-800-799-4889
Veterans Crisis Text—838255
Veterans Crisis Online Chat— https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat