Kristen Jones sat in a restaurant, marveling at the stories her grandfather and his friends shared with one another.
The men were of different ages and had different stories to tell, though their stories had similar themes: military combat.
Jones was in elementary school when she tagged along to this monthly meet-up organized by her grandfather, World War II Army veteran Clifford Manuel Jones Sr. His goal was to preserve the community of combat veterans through fellowship, and his mission wasn’t lost on Kristen.
“I became enamored with that community of people,” Kristen said. “My grandfather felt so strongly about his friends and cared about their well-being, and that kind of got passed down to me.”
Kristen’s grandfather has since passed, but his actions and tales of survival during World War II continue to motivate her to advocate for military veterans. That motivation grew over the years as the prevalence of veteran deaths by suicide became a national focus. The issues of veterans suffering from PTSD became personal as her friends from high school that served in combat grappled with the disorder, and as spouses struggled to support them.
The Springville native entered The University of Alabama with advocacy for veterans as a potential career focus, initially aspiring to become a judge advocate general. But with each psychology class she took and through each new encounter with grassroots advocates, her mission became clearer: take a meaningful, hands-on approach, just like her grandfather did.
Over the past year and a half, Kristen, who will graduate from UA in August with degrees in psychology and history, has worked to establish Restoring Freedom, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling services to military veterans and their families. Its peer support group meets monthly and includes recreational therapy like hiking, kayaking and horseback riding.
Kristen is eager to work full time at building out Restoring Freedom’s programming and network of partners. Restoring Freedom has its first veterans’ trail ride planned for the end of August. Kristen is waiting to get the group’s 501c3 status approved; then, she’ll begin applying for grants and looking for meeting space.
“The original plan was to find a job with either one of my degrees, save up money and do it in the future,” Kristen said. “But I was at church one morning, and we were talking about passions and goals, and I decided there was no reason to wait. I had the people to help me, and I should start it now.
“Twenty-five to 30 veterans commit suicide every day, and that’s been the statistic for 20 years. So something needed to be done, and I felt like that’s what I want to do with my life –- to make a small difference — at first in my community, then it will hopefully spread.”
Heather Gunn, UA assistant professor of psychology, was impressed with Kristen’s drive and ability to establish Restoring Freedom while enrolled full time and working part-time jobs.
“[Kristen’s work] demonstrates extraordinary independence and forward thinking about a vulnerable population,” Gunn said.
The challenges of establishing a nonprofit group are aplenty; Kristen has had to organize a board of directors, draft bylaws and raise money. She was keen to take classes that could better inform the programming of Restoring Freedom. For instance, she took a sleep psychology class because veterans with PTSD often struggle to sleep.
She’s also struggled to connect with some veterans because she hasn’t experienced combat, and some veterans are skeptical of her ability to relate to them, “which is understandable,” but equally frustrating because of her knowledge and desire to help, she said.
But now, with more time to dedicate to Restoring Freedom, she’s eager for the challenges ahead.
“Honestly, there’s probably not 30 minutes that goes by where I’m not thinking of [Restoring Freedom],” she said. “Veterans gave so much to our country, and a lot of people don’t understand what they gave up to serve our country. I feel a huge passion to fill that gap, and make sure that, when they come home, they get everything they deserve.”