MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After eight years honoring Gene Vance Jr., the foundation that carries the Morgantown native’s name is hoping to pivot towards a larger purpose.

Gene Vance Jr

“The issues that we’re addressing at this moment in time where we’ve got delays in catastrophic care, where we’ve got suicide at an all-time rate, requires that our organization has to do more,” Michael Minc, organization founder, tells MetroNews affiliate WAJR-AM in Morgantown.

Gene Vance Jr., a Morgantown native, died May 18, 2002 while deployed in Afghanistan in the earliest stages of the War on Terror. The 17th anniversary of his death will also mark the eighth consecutive year the foundation will hold events honoring him in Morgantown.

“18 years after the attacks, sadly, some of the statistics for our war-wounded veterans are not much improved,” Minc said.

Minc, Vance’s brother-in-law, said the organization needs to both raise awareness and attempt to help address fundamental problems facing veterans when they return to civilian life.

“The reality is that it’s going to require an entire lifetime of care,” Minc said. “The communication and the feelings of isolation and ostracizing or inability of the community to understand what it really means to be defending the rights and the freedoms that we all take for granted — I think a lot of that has become just rhetoric.”

Mark Zambon, a Marine Corps veteran who lost both of his legs during his sixth tour of duty, is studying now to work in the mental health industry. Hping to help those who suffered trauma during military service, he works with the foundation on a number of issues.

“It’s very important that our country understand this,” Zambon said. “Our military doesn’t go to war for the military. Our military goes to war when it’s sent their on behalf of our people.”

Both Zambon and Minc agreed that the “tiny community” comprised of veterans and active service members — a small fraction of the populace at large — has changed the way communities at-large perceive veterans. Zambon used the defunct military draft as an example — noting that his six tours of duty were done by one person from one community, rather than six people from six different communities.

“The effect of it is it is less human beings, less stories that are returning to the American culture and population that are sharing the sacrifice and hardship of war,” Zambon said. “So the nation feels the effect of it less.”

Minc, a veteran himself, said it can often be difficult to explain the high-stakes issues veterans or family members face to those outside of the community.

“I’ve heard it many times before, Americans in the shopping mall while men and women are on the battle field — it’s two different realities,” he said. “How do we pull the breach and provide the care that’s required when our communities only, as Mark has referenced, have a small number of people? That’s where we come in.”

The 2019 edition of Gene Vance Jr. Day will feature the Freedom 5K Run for Healing, Freedom Ride with Pride, Freedom Walk to Support, and the Freedom Tees.