A Voice for Veterans
Through his nonprofit work, Leroy Ashwood ’71 advocates for veterans
Leroy Ashwood ’71 has always been social by nature. During his first year at Stevens Business College, he spent his weekends visiting friends at Brandeis until they convinced him to transfer in 1968 as a sophomore. Today, Ashwood runs a nonprofit organization to assist military veterans and has coupled his social tendencies with social entrepreneurship in order to seek wide-scale change for the services available to veterans.
“It became evident to me that folks who were returning from the initial war in Afghanistan and Iraq were coming back to an economy that was not going to greet them with jobs that would enable them to sustain themselves — that was the flat basis for beginning to think about a problem and a solution,” Ashwood said in an interview with the Justice.
This realization inspired Ashwood, the son of a World War II veteran, to found BRAVE for Veterans in 2009. BRAVE is a nonprofit organization, based in Massachusetts but with an office in Washington D.C., that works to assist military veterans in making the transition back into civilian life.
Initially, Ashwood, the president and chief executive officer of BRAVE, saw an opportunity to use a federal government initiative to create jobs for veterans in digitizing medical records, in order to fill the need for digital records and provide technological skills and experience to veterans. However, when that initiative was unexpectedly cancelled in 2013, Ashwood revised BRAVE’s approach to work as an integrated network of resources, ranging from job opportunities to veteran advocacy.
Two fellow Brandeis alumni work closely with Ashwood in achieving BRAVE’s mission. Gerald R. Lucas ’71 serves BRAVE as a Senior Leadership Team Member and as an officer clerk of the organization. Additionally, Dean G. Yuzek ’71 and his law firm, Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti, LLP, are one of two legal counsels of BRAVE. Yuzek has been a part of BRAVE since it’s inception.
AN INSPIRATION: Leroy Ashwood ’71 (left) stands with Paul Rieckhoff (right), the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
MARCH SOUTH: Two years ago, BRAVE helped plan an event that featured reinactors of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry who marched south to join the Civil War.
IMPROMPTU PHOTOSHOOT: Leroy Ashwood ’71 (middle row, far left) took this photo for the yearbook with friends including Gerald R. Lucas ’71 (far right) and Dean Yuzek (middle row, far right) while in their senior year at Brandeis.
“We repurposed the organization BRAVE for Veterans to help veterans get the jobs that already exist and to do everything we can to prepare them along with the work force system in place to get self-sustainable work,” Ashwood said.
However, BRAVE does not just seek available jobs for veterans; the organization also focuses on sustainable employment. “If there’s no county [in] the United States of America where a person can rent a two bedroom apartment on a minimum wage salary, then BRAVE would not try to help a veteran get a job paying a minimum wage,” Ashwood said. “What we are identifying are jobs that allow them [veterans] to form a household for themselves and their families.”
Additionally, BRAVE has been successful in advocating for veterans’ rights. BRAVE proposed a section of the Valor Act I which was successfully passed in 2012 and requires each public institution in Massachusetts to develop procedures and policies to evaluate a student’s military occupation, coursework and experience in order to receive credit toward a professional degree or certification.
“We have a track record for having effective legislative improvement to assist veterans getting their feet on the ground and getting their feet on the ground back home in a firm way,” Ashwood explained. BRAVE separates itself from other veteran organizations by not focusing on how many veterans they serve each week.
“The analytics that evaluate other veteran programs don’t really relate to how we approach the veteran community — what we’re doing right now is we’re looking at the ways in which we can identify the gap fillings, and by doing so and doing so effectively, we can effect the whole class, and so our measurement will come after we’ve done that work and put that in place,” Ashwood said.
Ashwood and the BRAVE leadership team, mostly made up of military veterans — of both men and women — are currently working on a legislative proposal due this Friday that seeks to improve oral health for veterans.
“70 percent of 380,000 veterans who live in Massachusetts are over the age of 55, so we don’t have a lot of combat veterans. We have national guard and reserve people who are older, who have occupations and so forth, or a lot of folks in that demographic who are Vietnam era and in some cases didn’t get the treatment they should have received when they came back and have kind of fallen out of the specter of things,” Ashwood said.
Ashwood’s leadership skills in founding and operating BRAVE have been apparent since his time as a student at Brandeis. In 1969, he participated in the 11-day occupation of Ford Hall 1969 and succeeded Roy DeBerry ’70 MA’78 PhD ’79 as a co-chair of the Brandeis Afro-American Society — a role that Ashwood said was possible after witnessing the national student strike and seeing how the sociology department managed it. According to Ashwood, that experience gave him a vision that was bigger than himself. Upon graduation, Ashwood was awarded the Bruce R. Mayper Memorial Award for his activity as a student promoting interracial amity.
“I was recognized for being a student on campus that worked to keep everybody connected rather than apart. It’s probably the thing I appreciate most about having spent my time there [at Brandeis]. I dedicated myself to that role because I had that role in my high school — it’s a continuation of things. Even though there had to be and were pockets of racial discord, it never really manifested itself to me personally. And if it did, I would have diffused it in a way that was acceptable by everybody. We did have issues, and that’s why Ford Hall was Ford Hall,” Ashwood said.
Ashwood credits his success as a student and social entrepreneur to growing up in the midst of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and having several mentor-like figures who provided wisdom and guidance throughout his academic career. One example of a mentor to Ashwood was the Rabbi at Brandeis at the time, Rabbi Axelrod, who also happened to be the rabbi from Ashwood’s high school.
“Wisdom … that I was exposed to in my particular journey gave me confidence that I could weather and persevere against adversity that I would encounter later in my life. It all came to fruition at Brandeis. I didn’t interview for a job until I was 32 years old. All I had to do was say I was a graduate of Brandeis University and that was the end of the conversation. I could never look at the system I came through and say [that] I was not encouraged, inspired and supported.”
Ultimately, Ashwood hopes to largely incorporate Brandeis in addition to other universities in the area, with BRAVE. He is pursuing help within the Heller School of Social Work and Management to generate the interest and support of students in BRAVE’s mission. Ashwood has configured three categories in which BRAVE can seek assistance from Brandeis; a sustainability plan, research needs and an evaluation component. He predicts that the MBA program at Brandeis may be helpful in creating a sustainability plan as well. BRAVE currently seeks student interns to assist in any of these categories.
“So we are building our organizational capability from a volunteer point of view to be sure that at the end of the story we have all of the functionality that we need to be a 21st-century, mission-driven, margin-generating, nonprofit entity on behalf of veterans,” Ashwood said.