Why it's important to recognize veterans beyond Veterans Day

November 9, 2022

After surviving an IED blast, Marine Corps veteran and UM-Dearborn student Evan Ahlin started a new mission: Connecting those who’ve served with support and resources.

Photo of student veterans in the Memorial Day parade
UM-Dearborn's Student Veterans Association march in the 2022 Memorial Day parade. Marine Corps veteran Evan Ahlin is pictured with his son on his shoulders. Chancellor Domenico Grasso, an Army veteran, is on the far right. Photo by Fatooma Saad

On Evan Ahlin’s home office walls, there are photos of friends and family members. And then there’s a picture of a vehicle. It is hard to visually decipher at first — it’s tilted, twisted and parts of it are missing.

“That’s my M-ATV minutes after we hit an IED (improvised explosive device),” said Ahlin, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. “I keep that up there to remind myself things could be worse when I’m having a bad day.”

Ahlin, a junior majoring in Communications, said life shifted in that moment. Though he did not realize it at the time, the May 22, 2010 blast in Afghanistan was the start of a new role for him: advocate. 

Everyone in the vehicle survived. But a series of health issues followed for Ahlin, including a traumatic brain injury, PTSD and a stroke. Afterward, he was reassigned from his artillery job to one in combat photography, and he found a passion for communication. Today, Dearborn resident Ahlin openly talks about his experience in an effort to help other service members and veterans. [Here’s a video of Ahlin made by Brainline, an online TBI health education resource.]

Ahlin is active in veterans organizations, including the Dearborn Allied War Veteran Council and UM-Dearborn’s Student Veterans Association. And, as the City of Dearborn’s veteran liaison, he’s instrumental in organizing the city’s Memorial Day parade, one of the oldest in the nation. Ahlin also planned this year’s City of Dearborn Veterans Day ceremony, which is a tribute to all who’ve served in the U.S. military. The event takes place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, 15801 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn.

Marine Corps veteran Evan Ahlin circa 2009

“People join the military for many different reasons. No matter how someone got there, they made an oath to serve something bigger than themselves. That’s honorable,” Ahlin said. “Some people want to be thanked for that, others prefer to stay in the background. But, either way, it’s important to let our veterans know that we recognize their service.”

Ahlin said recognition and resources are essential to veterans who are looking for civilian connections — not just on Nov. 11, but every day of the year.

“There are stereotypes and stigmas that come with being a veteran — the media often portrays us as unstable, drunk or homeless, and sometimes all three at once — and that’s hard to overcome when you’re trying to put yourself out there and connect with people. So any effort made to get to know veterans in the community, to tear down walls, and to include our voice is appreciated,” he said. “It’s hard for anyone to ask for help, especially when they aren’t connected and don’t realize the support they need may be available.”

He’s impressed with the level of support UM-Dearborn — and in particular, Veteran Services Program Manager Tom Pitock — gives veterans: “If you want to earn your college degree, find a school with a Tom. Get a mentor. Before enrolling, visit the school so you can feel it out and learn if it’s a good fit for you. For me, UM-Dearborn is the right fit.”

He’s also appreciative of Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud’s efforts to build a stronger citywide support network for veterans, like looking for ways to incorporate veteran voices into city activities and hiring veterans for city internships. 

Ahlin, who grew up in New Hampshire, considers Dearborn home. He moved here after retirement with his wife, Fatooma Saad. Also a Marine Corps veteran, Saad — who grew up in Dearborn — graduated from UM-Dearborn in 2018 and is currently working on her Ph.D. at Wayne State University.

Ahlin hopes more people become involved in veteran service organizations. He said the camaraderie gained provides benefits like career connections, mental and physical health support, and more.

Ahlin said he’s realized that some of the most horrific life experiences can lead to positive outcomes.

Looking back at his military career — it’s been almost 20 years since he enlisted — Ahlin said he wouldn’t change anything. He’s traveled the world, met his wife and experienced events that are now featured in movies and documentaries, like the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the rescue of a merchant vessel from Somali pirates.

Most importantly, it gave him the foundation of his mission now.

“I want veterans to know that you can, and will, do great things. In the military, we learn to be mission driven, to push forward. But then, when we get out, no one tells you the mission,” he said. “So it’s key to remind veterans, injured or not, that we have a mission, a purpose. There are organizations that welcome you and want to help you discover yours — and they are right in your backyard.”

Want to get involved? Check out the City of Dearborn veterans resources page or contact Ahlin directly.

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.