Guided by tikkun olam, Phyllis Wiggins is a voice for veterans | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Guided by tikkun olam, Phyllis Wiggins is a voice for veterans

Phyllis Wiggins, a Grafton resident, understands the tolls that military service can have on a veteran. That is why she became a veterans service officer with the national Jewish War Veterans, to advocate for those who need a voice, she said.

Racked with student loan debt after obtaining a master’s degree, Wiggins enlisted in the United States Army with an eight-year contract — with six years of active duty — for the opportunity to give back and be debt free.

But two years into her service, Wiggins said she experienced the unthinkable. She recounts that she was framed by a fellow soldier in Germany, who was perhaps trying to divert attention from their own actions. She said she was held by U.S. authorities for the alleged crime, and she tells a tale of stressful confusion, living without enough information. Wiggins has military paperwork consistent with this story.

But she was cleared, she said, and then served four more years in the Army. Despite the harrowing experience, she had honorable discharge paperwork to share with the Chronicle.

“It floored me to be somewhere where I’m considered one of the greatest defenders of justice because I’m a soldier, and then to be treated so unjustly,” Wiggins said.

As soon as she finished her service, Wiggins joined the Jewish War Veterans with a lifetime membership. JWV National Commander Colonel Nelson L. Mellitz said that Wiggins’ background has been vetted. “I wish I knew her when she was in Germany at that time. In addition to the Jewish chaplain that helped her, we would have helped her,” Mellitz said.

Though raised in a fundamental Christian family, she said Judaism appealed to her from a young age and she identified with Jewish traditions and practices.

“I was grateful that Judaism teaches you that it’s okay to remember,” Wiggins said. “It’s okay to remember the bad things that happened to you. But I didn’t have to let it negatively impact my life. Because I could have come home and been bitter and angry and resentful. But I hung onto tikkun olam — that is what kept me going through all of that. I hung onto tikkun olam, that I am here to make this world a better place.”

While hospitalized in the VA hospital post-service, Wiggins became an advocate for those on her ward who couldn’t speak for themselves, calling various veterans organizations to provide assistance. It was through her efforts that the hospital began to provide snacks that could be eaten at any time — because she realized that veterans did not have a way to eat after the kitchen closed.

Eventually, she undertook the training and accreditation process to become a veterans service officer through both the Jewish War Veterans and the Disabled American Veterans. With that title, Wiggins is able to assist fellow veterans who are struggling to get benefits or navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs. Wiggins is one of seven veteran service officers with the Jewish War Veterans, according to Mellitz.

“We help people find what they are entitled to. We help people get to the answer,” Wiggins said.

According to Kim Queen, post commander of the Jewish War Veterans department of Wisconsin, it is rare for a woman to be a veterans service officer with the organization nationally.

“I am proud to be a fellow veteran with her,” Queen said. “She’s out there in the community. She helps veterans wherever she can.”

Wiggins continues to advocate for Jewish veterans in the Wisconsin area who need assistance navigating a complex system. She wants veterans to know it is always okay to ask for help.

“I have no desire to see a veteran locked away — even in the silos of his or her own mind — without somebody to fight for them,” Wiggins said.

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Are you a veteran in need of assistance? Contact the Jewish War Veterans at