Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Michael Saunders, the new Veterans Service Officer (VSO) for Saugus, after his second day on the job (March 30). We asked him about the experience and background that prepares him for this new job and the priorities he has set for himself. Saunders, 40, who grew up in Everett and now lives in Malden, is a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed twice as a combat engineer in support of Iraqi Freedom. He succeeds Jay Pinette, who has served as the town’s VSO since March of 2018 and plans to retire on or about April 14. Pinette is currently training Saunders to take over the task of assisting Saugus veterans and their families. Saunders plans to work in the Veterans’ Services Office on the first floor of Saugus Town Hall on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Saunders previously worked as the school certifying officer at the Danvers campus of North Shore Community College. His past experience also includes working as the veterans coordinator at Endicott College in Beverly and as the assistant veterans coordinator at Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Mass. He earned an associate’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences/Liberal Studies from Middlesex Community College (2016) and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College (2018). He earned a Master of Science degree in leadership and organizational communication from Northeastern University (2020).
He served as a combat engineer with the U.S. Army’s 70th Engineer Battalion out of Fort Riley, Kansas, for more than three years (November 2002–May 2006). He was deployed to Iraq twice: 2003 to 2004 and late 2004 to 2006. His duties included route clearance, house searches, munitions detonation, annual weapons qualifications and vehicle maintenance. He received numerous medals for his service, including Valorous Unit Award, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon (second award), Combat Action Badge, Driver and Mechanic Badge and Army Lapel Button/Service in Iraq in Support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
When he’s not working to help fellow veterans, Saunders spends time freelance writing. He is staff writer for AT EASE! Veterans Magazine of Denton County, North Texas. He has written a children’s book titled “Ten Days and a Wakeup,” which focuses on a child’s expectations of a parent when he or she returns from military service. It also covers the parents’ concerns. He is looking for a publisher. Meanwhile, he is also working on another book titled “The Doctors Are Afraid of Us, which he says is “a story about my Sapper Platoon.”
Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: Tell me why you decided to come to Saugus and why this particular job.
A: I’ve been in the market for a VSO position for quite some time. As it turned out, Saugus was the one where a position had opened up. What attracted me to this position is being able to help out veterans beyond the scope of their educational benefits. From working with veterans at Middlesex Community College, Endicott College and North Shore Community College, I felt I had enough of veterans work in the educational field and [wanted to] do something else. I feel like the VSO position will allow me to make the position what I want it to be – to help veterans get more benefits and to be active in local veterans’ events, even if I have to do it on my own time.
Q: How did the hiring go?
A: I interviewed on March 7, and at about 3 o’clock on March 8, I received the call that I would be formally offered the position.
Q: How long did your job interview go?
A: About an hour.
Q: What did they ask you?
A: They were trying to impress upon me the amount of paperwork that’s involved in this position. And they were looking to see how I would react – like whether I was going to get up and run from the room! The paperwork is part of the job and doesn’t bother me.
Q: What are your early impressions of Saugus?
A: I’m not unfamiliar with Saugus. I’ve been up here as a boy. I remember when the Square One Mall was built. I’ve always liked Saugus. We used to come up to the Square One Mall a lot. Some of my buddies were from Saugus. I like it because it’s scenic. It’s kind of the best of both worlds: You’ve got city life here, but you have just enough open space to where you’re in the country sometimes.
Q: How has your orientation been going so far? It looks like Jay Pinette will be working with you for close to three weeks, which should make for a smooth transition.
A: I’m learning the ropes and learning my boundaries. It’s only my second day, and I still have a lot to learn. I think society as a whole puts veterans’ issues under one umbrella, but the multitude of issues affecting veterans aren’t all the same. You might have some veterans dealing with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], and then you might have other veterans living in their cars because they’re homeless. So, you’ve got to prepare yourself for everything.
Q: Get any good advice from Jay?
A: Jay has been very helpful during this transition. I’m kind of learning the tricks of the trade from him.
Q: What’s the best advice Jay has given you so far?
A: To take every veterans’ claim seriously and to treat all veterans and their families with the dignity that they deserve and to do everything in my power that I can do. Like Jay was saying today – “If you are unable to help them, you can turn them onto somebody who may be able to help them” – and that’s the basic plan I have today.
Q: So, what’s your outlook on this job?
A: Jay has done a lot of wonderful things for veterans in the town, in helping the veterans who are currently receiving services. He’s done a great job. But I want to try to leave my own legacy one day. I want to make the office more visible to other veterans who may be struggling and who are not aware of what a VSO can do. I want to weave this position into the fabric of the town, building on what’s already been done. My overall goal is to breathe more life into the job. I want every veteran in Saugus to know that my door is always open and we can discuss any personal issues. I’m a very resourceful guy. If I can’t help you, chances are I know somebody who may be able to help.
I understand from Jay that the people who look to the office for help are mostly widows and old-timers. But I’m going to try to change that. As veterans, we’ve got to stick together.
Q: Do you have any projects in mind?
A: One thing I’d like to get out there is about the post-9/11 GI Bill vs. the Forever GI Bill. It’s something that’s been brought to my attention, and I’m still trying to figure out all that’s involved. The main thing that affects me and anybody discharged before 2013 is that they are limited: They get 15 years to use the GI Bill after they’ve been discharged. The problem with that is that when you’re dealing with before 2013, you’re still dealing with a lot of Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans. And 15 years isn’t a lot of time to allow veterans to go to school if they are dealing with other issues – like PTSD, physical issues or alcohol or substance abuse. I don’t believe they should have a clock ticking on their education. It should be there for them when they are ready to take it. I don’t think the Veterans Administration has taken them into consideration at all. But for anyone who was discharged after 2013, there’s no limit under the Forever GI Bill. There should be no time limit for all veterans when it comes to getting college education or training. Something I plan to do in my spare time is to work on my own to help change that. They ought to roll back the date for the veterans discharged before 2013.
Q: So, what best prepares you for this position?
A: A lot of the struggles that veterans encounter, I also have encountered, like homelessness and couch surfing. Coach surfing is when you call your buddies up and ask them “Hey, can I sleep on your couch tonight?” Then I ask another friend the next night for the same kind of help. Then, there’s the struggle of not being able to find suitable employment. A lot of places that interviewed me seemed like they were afraid to hire me because I am a veteran and they don’t want to deal with somebody who suffers from PTSD.
Q: What’s your skill set? What are some of the talents you bring to the table?
A: My attention to details and the number of contacts I already have in the field.
Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge in this position?
A: Finding those veterans and widows of veterans that I can’t do anything for because the Veterans Administration has denied their claim or there isn’t enough money in the budget to help them. Nobody likes to deliver that bad news. As you get to know them and learn their circumstances, you hate to drop the bomb on them. It’s a tough thing to do, but you still have to try to find somebody who can help them.
Q: From your resume, it looks like you’ve seen some combat.
A: Yes. One of my first experiences in combat was watching an EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] technician. He got blown up by an IUD [Improvised Explosive Device]. We had to run up there and I saw the aftereffects of it. It was not a good thing. His name was Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Robsky, Jr. and he was killed on Sept. 10, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq. He was assigned to the 759th Ordinance Company. He was a Marine from New York and was called in to neutralize an IUD. He was only 26, and I think about that guy every day.
Q: So, were you in harm’s way that day?
A: Yes. It was just a horrendous event that took place. My convoy was just passing through. We decided we were going to use our vehicles to block the road to clear that site. Staff Sgt. Robsky returned to the site after the initial attempt to neutralize the IUD failed. But the IUD went off, and after the explosion, it was like everything was in slow motion as I saw his helmet hit the street. To this day, it’s one of the things that I struggle to deal with. I had to physically remove him from the site. Gunfire broke out as I was carrying the guy. I had to get the guy to a safe place and myself to a safe place. I must have grown five years after seeing that. I became more cautious. In that situation, the bad guy wasn’t wearing a uniform.
Q: And you’ve had other close encounters?
A: Yes. I’ve seen and been through a lot. A guy in my battalion got hit with a car bomb and he died. I had a grenade thrown at me from off a bridge. I didn’t see it coming, but another guy tackled me to keep me from getting hit. Another time, my vehicle got hit by an IUD. I was driving this Humvee and I got my bell rung pretty good. There was one route that we called “The Thunderdome.” IUDs would go off on both sides of the road.
Q: So, please tell me about your other career as a writer.
A: When I first began taking courses at Middlesex Community College, I had an excellent working relationship with a professor – Dr. Denise Marchionda. She would tell me all the time, “You’re a writer, Mike.” I didn’t believe her at first, but she kept encouraging me, and then, I continued to work at it at Emerson College. When I got my master’s degree, there was no guarantee that I was going to write the next “Harry Potter” book or make it as a writer. But I have written a children’s book, “Ten Days and a Wake Up,” which I hope to get published, and I’m working on another book, “The Doctors Are Afraid Of Us.” That’s a coming of age, military-style story about my Sapper Platoon, and that’s a work in progress.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share?
A: I’m going to make my rounds, get out there and talk to people in town. I want to make it known that there’s no shame in getting help if you need it. Veterans who have earned the benefits and who are entitled to them should be taking full advantage of them. So, I’m looking forward to speaking to and meeting people from all veterans’ groups in town. I’m looking forward to speaking to veterans who are already on the books and getting new veterans into my office who have too much pride to take advantage of benefits that they’ve earned.
Every era of veterans has had its challenges. The Vietnam War veterans got spit on when they came home. My generation of soldiers – we had people fighting to open the door for us. I hope to intertwine the Nam era veterans with my era veterans. We look to them [Vietnam veterans] as role models. They can nudge us in the right direction. We can look to them as mentors, and I want every veteran or veteran’s widow who reads this article to know that my door will always be open and we can discuss any personal issues.