“I always wanted to be a teacher and to help somebody”, says University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education alumna Constance Burns.

Burns grew up in Birmingham. She later earned her bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in history and secondary education from the UAB School of Education in 1972 and 1974 respectively.

Today, the one-time school teacher and college instructor is the founder and CEO of the National Association of American Veterans (NAAV) Inc., a nonprofit service organization in Washington, D.C., that assists disabled military veterans and wounded service members as well as their caregivers.

Constance Burns

Life Changing Moments

Burns’ journey to becoming a caregiver and veterans’ advocate began after she completed her studies at UAB. She says she moved to Pennsylvania to pursue a doctorate in history at the University of Pittsburgh. But soon, a message from home would change her life.

“I got a call from Birmingham from a neighbor who said, ‘Your mother isn’t well,’” says Burns, “and I had to stop what I was doing because I was constantly having to tell the dean and the Ph.D. committee that I had to go home to be with my mother. So, I gave up everything there and moved back to Birmingham to take care of her.”

In Alabama, she worked for several years as a history teacher and college instructor. She also published articles about women’s issues and history. Then in 1991, she landed a job as the curator of education at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C.

In her role, she assisted scholars and authors from around the country, including U.S. Army Captain Evelyn Decker. Decker, a WWII and Korean War veteran, wrote an autobiography about becoming one of the first African American nurses commissioned by the U.S. Army.

Then one day in 2004, Burns says she got an invitation to tour the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., now known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. During her visit, she met several injured servicemen and women. One young soldier, says Burns, wept as he told her about a home electric bill he could not pay.

Afterward, Burns says a hospital chaplain told her that the soldier’s story was not unique.

“I said to myself that I’m just one person,” says Burns, “but that I wouldn’t forget them.”

A New Calling

So in 2005, Burns established NAAV. The organization partners with other nonprofit and government agencies to give veterans, severely injured servicemen and women, and their families access to social services such as emergency assistance referrals; legal, employment, and housing assistance; post-traumatic stress disorder and bereavement counseling; family counseling; career coaching; and Veterans Administration (VA) claims and benefits assistance.

NAAV’s other services include primary caregiver stress relieving activities and respite care. It also provides resources to veterans who are single parents.

“Single parents can have a rough time”, says Burns, “and sometimes they don’t have support from family. They struggle with getting the rent and trying to work a job. A lot of them are even dealing with post-traumatic stress or sexual trauma and having flashbacks.”

To obtain support for the organization, Burns says she spends much of her time each day meeting with partner agencies, nonprofits, law firms and financial institutions. She also collaborates with the VA and other veterans’ groups.

She says that as Veterans Day approaches, she encourages others to do whatever they can to honor those who have served their country in the armed forces.

“They need our love and support,” says Burns. “If you can just be there to volunteer, even if it’s at a retirement home or an armed forces retirement home, just be someone there to listen.”