“Individuals writing their Congressman do not drive institutional change, but if we get a million or more of us? Well, then they have to listen.”Garrett Cathcart
I am honored to have met Garrett Cathcart this year, and to have gotten to know more about his mission on behalf of America’s veterans. And as the wife of a veteran, I feel very strongly that this initiative is something all veterans need to know about.
Garrett currently serves as the executive director of Mission Roll Call, a nonpartisan groundbreaking initiative that provides veterans a powerful, unified voice to our communities and leaders to inform public policy. Garrett served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as a cavalry scout with the U.S. Army. During the Surge in 2006, Garrett was a Reconnaissance Scout Platoon Leader in northern Baghdad. He served as an Iraqi Army military advisor team chief in 2008, living, training and operating with an Iraqi infantry battalion. Garrett was also a cavalry troop commander in Afghanistan in 2010 where he was commended for recruiting and operating with tribal militia to fight the Taliban.
Cathcart graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2004 and the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University in 2018. Now, he’s dedicating himself to veteran advocacy.
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How did Mission Roll Call start?
Mission Roll Call started from a conversation around a campfire at a veterans retreat. Myself (and) Jim Lorraine (the President and CEO of America’s Warrior Partnership, a Medal of Honor recipient and a funder) were talking about why few post-9/11 veterans joined the legacy veteran organizations like the VFW or the American Legion. As we talked, we realized that almost half of every veteran in the country wasn’t connected to any veteran organization or to the VA.
How can we accurately understand the needs of veterans and their families if half are not represented? We started to think about a solution that would resonate with any veteran, but appeal to post-9/11 veterans. We began to talk about a digital solution where we could connect to veterans where they were, and give them a platform to make their voices heard. The idea evolved, and through some trial and error–we have a platform that lowers the barriers from veterans directly to policymakers, and a way to unify and amplify voices to those that make decisions that affect them.
We also realized that we needed powerful and authentic content to drive the platform. We wanted to tell real stories of real veterans — their struggles, their success and how they have found purpose again. We want to change the negative perception of veterans this country has, and show stories of post-traumatic growth– of how we are stronger after going through hard things.
Related: Dead Reckoning Collective helping aspiring veteran writers
You’ve served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Why did you feel called to lead this new movement?
Since that campfire, my mind wouldn’t stop thinking about building Mission Roll Call. At the time there was no name for it–but the idea that we could create a way to reach out and connect to veterans where they were, in their homes, fascinated me. It was creating something that has not been attempted before — to crowdsource veteran public policy.
My passion for it came from my service in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had the honor to serve with a lot of amazing people in combat during some pretty hard times. After their service, I saw them struggling with a lot of things. Access to decent health care (getting an appointment at the VA for the most basic need was tough), finding new purpose in life, landing a decent job — that fueled my passion for this. Individuals writing their Congressman do not drive institutional change, but if we get a million or more of us? Well, then they have to listen. It’s for my guys, who really are all the others too.
Organizations like the VFW and American Legion have long been invaluable to veterans, but they have both seen a decline in membership over the past decade, especially among younger veterans. How is Mission Roll Call offering a different kind of community that appeals to younger veterans?
Those organizations still are invaluable. They are the big hitters on Capitol Hill, though I like to think the MRC model is gaining traction, especially when individual members of the House and Senate and both VA committees ask us what our members are staying. The VFW and Legion still offer a physical place to gather, which is the soul of community — to build relationships with other people.
There is a longer conversation about why membership is not growing at those organizations, but I think we are growing because what we do deeply resonates. When policymakers ask MRC questions, I tell them it’s not about what I think, it’s what our members have said.
We ask our members short and specific questions via text and sometimes email on what they think–and then we take that directly to policymakers. We are then able to turn around and tell our members what the policymaker said in this beautiful loop of input and accountability. I think that model really appeals to younger veterans. It’s the immediacy and the direct input that makes MRC different.
You frequently poll your more than 1 million members, so you have perhaps one of the best birds-eye views of the veteran community. What are the issues veterans are saying they are most concerned about?
Without question, the number one priority is solving the veteran suicide crisis. The very first question we asked was: What do you want us to work on? The overwhelming response was suicide.
There are a lot of issues that feed into that. A big one is access to health care, particularly mental health care. The VA quadrupled their budget over the last 20 years, but it’s had no effect on the suicide rate. Our members helped answer questions that led to MRC to submit testimony in support of a Senate bill that will find local nonprofits at the community level. It was amazing, and a real change in the fight.
We have a long way to go. The MISSION Act has passed, which allows veterans to seek medical appointments in the community if the VA cannot see them in a timely manner, but it’s not being implemented. COVID sparked 20 million canceled VA appointments. We need to get that backlog cleared.
Related: National Suicide Prevention Week: Resources for active duty and veterans
What is the biggest thing veterans and their families can do to make their voices heard?
There are several ways — and yes, I’m biased — but join Mission Roll Call. We are stronger in numbers, and we take what you say directly to policymakers. We would be honored to have your voice to make ours louder demanding things our veterans have earned.
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Feature image: Sandboxx News composite, images courtesy of missionrollcall.org
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