Leader Spotlight: Shannon Rhein
As part of United Religions Initiative North America’s #TangibleHope campaign, Veterans for American Ideals is recognizing veteran leaders who are continuing their service by building unity and standing up for American values. Through a series of interviews, we’re asking VFAI leaders to share more about how their service shaped them and what responsibility they feel veterans have to speak up on issues that relate to our national ideals.
Today’s interview is with Shannon Rhein, a former Army Medic who was wounded in action during a mortar attack in Ramadi in 2006. She continues to serve in a different capacity today, working with the homeless at a nonprofit in Texas.
Tell me about your military service.
I joined the army when I was 17, right out of high school. I initially decided to join the service to get away from my family. When it came time to sign my contract and leave for good, I would have to say pride was the driving factor behind following through with my commitment. I served as a medic from 2004 until May of 2007 in Bamberg, Germany with the 54th Combat Engineers. I deployed to Ramadi Iraq for an ’05 – ‘06 tour and it was there that I was wounded in action, ending my deployment and also my time in the service.
How did your service shape the person you are today?
I had to grow up really quickly after I joined, and then even more after I was wounded. While I was in Iraq I witnessed some of the most devastating conditions I had ever seen other human beings living in, and it really affected me. I wouldn’t say I had it easy growing up, but for the most part I always had food to eat and clean clothes to wear. But there, I was in the middle of another country watching these families not have enough to feed their children or not even have the freedom to make choices to better the situation they were in. It was devastating. When I got home I can remember thinking to myself, “Americans are so lucky,” and being proud that our military was acting to prevent such travesties.
As a veteran, what sort of responsibility do you feel to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals?
I feel I have a greater responsibility to speak up on issues that relate to American ideals because I thought this country was worth putting my life on the line to defend. What kind of American would I be if I didn’t continue to hold this country to the same standards that have brought me such great pride?
Tell me about one issue related to those ideals that is of particular importance or concern to you right now. What are you doing about it?
A major issue that I am combating here in my community is homelessness. In Grand Prairie, Texas, there are at least 2500 people that are classified as homeless. That doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping out on the streets, but it does mean there are families relying on the kindness of other families to allow them a place to lay their heads, it means there are children growing up without stability, men and women without the comfort or safety of a place to call their own. It means starvation, affliction, addiction, emptiness, it means there are our brothers and sisters out there experiencing their weakest points in their lives who are either too ashamed to ask for help or have no idea where to even begin to get it.
I work with a non-profit organization called Lend a Helping Hand and we do weekly feed and fellowships with whoever wants to join us. Our target audience is the homeless but we’ve never turned away anyone who has wanted to be a part of it. It’s more than just providing a meal for these people though—we actually get down in there with them, talk to them, encourage them to leave the drugs and alcohol behind, we remind them that society does still care. Many of the homeless people we work with come from terrible circumstances—from sexual abuse, addiction, physical abuse, to much worse. You would be surprised what a simple hug can do for one person. For a couple hours out of their day we lift them up in hopes that eventually they will want the help we are trying to provide for them.
What would you say to other veterans about the role that they can play in these issues as citizens?
I would say that as veterans, we should be playing larger roles in issues that affect citizens of our country. Just because we came home and took that uniform off doesn’t mean that the United States stopped entrusting us with the responsibility to defend our country—and that includes what is happening here in our own neighborhoods.