Westchester resident dedicates his life to fighting for U.S. vets
By Alex Hutton
When Shad Meshad returned home from Vietnam in the early 1970s, he knew his work wasn’t done. He wanted to dedicate his life to making change.
So, in 1985, Meshad founded the National Veterans Foundation (NVF), which helps veterans reintegrate into civilian life. The Westchester resident still serves as the organization’s director and has worked in the field of veteran assistance for even longer. It’s the only way he knows.
“I’m a rare bird,” Meshad said. “I’ve been doing this forever. I married it.”
Meshad is originally from Alabama and grew up in a Lebanese Catholic family. He entered college at a crucial time for the Vietnam War, right when the United States was dramatically increasing the number of troops stationed in South Vietnam. Meshad didn’t go to Vietnam until a few years later but earned the rank of captain while there, working mainly in medical service. He witnessed the horrors of war, but faced an entirely different battle upon coming back.
“I’ve always said we fought two wars, Vietnam vets — the war in Vietnam and the war coming home,” Meshad said. “So that’s what made it very difficult.”
Meshad accepted a job with the Veterans Administration, now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA. He noticed that veterans were not using the VA as much as they could have been, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.
He started a program that focused on meeting former soldiers directly. He went to areas where many veterans lived, in order to utilize community support, creating spaces where they could tell other veterans about the challenges they faced.
The signature aspect of the project was Meshad’s use of “rap groups,” a term he coined to describe these meetings where veterans discussed their struggles. Although this program is now national, it was completely unique when Meshad started it in 1974.
He traveled around the country, running the initiative almost single handedly and acquiring the nickname “The Madman.”
“I was pretty loud- and a revolutionary-type guy because I didn’t really give a darn,” Meshad recalled. “I just told the truth.”
Meshad worked with the VA for over a decade, but as he went further along with his work, he started facing restrictions on what he was allowed to say and do. The Madman was being constrained, and he wouldn’t stand for it.
“I was everywhere, but now it became a bureaucratic thing,” Meshad said. “And so I said, ‘I’m going to step out and I’m going to start the National Veterans Foundation.’”
When Meshad started the organization, it was called the Vietnam Veterans Aid Foundation, but when the Gulf War of the early 1990s created a new crop of veterans, he had to expand its reach. Since then, U.S. involvement in the Middle East has produced a steady stream of former soldiers dealing with trauma, meaning that Meshad’s work is becoming increasingly important.
It wasn’t just the importance of the NVF that increased during the 21st century. The help that the organization offers has gone up as well. It doubled the number of employees around 2004, near the beginning of the Iraq War, in order to do more in-person outreach and to have more phone lines for veterans and their family members to call. In keeping with advances in technology, the NVF now provides services over the internet as well.
“We’ve had to stay up with the youth and what they do and how they reach us,” Meshad explained.
Although the foundation’s in-person work has declined during the pandemic, Meshad and his team are still able to offer some limited help in that capacity and have maintained their distanced work, such as phone and internet communication. The impact of being in a war never goes away, and Meshad can’t afford to pause his work.
“Humans are not like predators,” Meshad said. “And we train to be predators. We kill other humans. It’s just not normal.”
Meshad is 76 years old and still going strong, but he has begun to think about the future of the organization and what it will look like after he isn’t able to work anymore.
“I’m always cognizant of trying to find another madman like myself,” he said. “You’ve got to have a lot of energy and a lot of knowledge, and you’ve got to understand the population we deal with and be innovative and be a visionary.”
Meshad’s focus on finding his successor is a microcosm of his entire adult life: constantly focused on others and doing the most possible to help veterans.
“Maybe it’s my upbringing — Christian upbringing, Catholic,” he mused. “I have to give back.”