Local veterans get a helping hand

Stand-down event provides hot meal and clothes, offers career, college opportunities

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Did you know?

More than 100 veterans’ stand-downs have been scheduled across the country this year; some are two- or three-day events, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The aroma of roast pig can get your mouth to watering.

Paperwork? Not so much. But sometimes, filling in those forms has to come first.

Fortunately, "The lines weren't long," one participant noted during Clark County's 2013 veterans' stand-down.

Wednesday's event at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Orchards was a one-stop-shopping opportunity for local veterans in need. Benefits at the annual event ranged from immediate help, like a shower and a hot meal -- in this case, a roasted pig -- to college and career opportunities.

There also was an area where homeless veterans could stock up on day-to-day necessities.

A volunteer escort helped each veteran look through tables of new jeans, socks, boots and stocking caps -- some handmade by local knitters.

Finally, the veteran could get a backpack to put everything in, and then top it off with a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad.

Don Banks, who said he served four years in the Air Force, was one of the veterans with a filled backpack.

"I'm on the streets right now," Banks said, and he added a reassuring note: "I'm good."

That attitude was shared by Cleveland Smith, who served four years in the Air Force in the 1960s.

"I've been blessed," Smith said. While he was glad to get a chance to restock his supplies, "I don't have much need for doctors or medicine."

Keith Scott, one of the stand-down organizers, explained that items such as boots, backpacks and sleeping bags were government surplus. That means they're restricted to a select clientele.

"We can only give Department of Defense items to veterans," Scott said.

Scott is outreach director of the Clark County Veterans Assistance Center, 1305 Columbia St., which organized the stand-down.

Many of the veterans were of the Vietnam War generation, but Wednesday's turnout included a more recent crop of vets.

"We're seeing a lot of younger folks, and that's concerning," said Larry Smith, a retired Army officer and Vancouver city councilor. "We're not taking care of them. Some of them have gone through multiple tours, and they're having problems re-integrating with their families."

Health care services included blood pressure screenings and vision checks. And at a mobile dental van, volunteers were in the middle of what shaped up to be a busy day.

At last year's stand-down, "We had three or four," said Liz Meyer, dental van coordinator for the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington.

"We've already seen five today, and we're not far along. Twelve applications have been filled out," Meyer said. One of those veterans needed to have his last tooth removed, she said.

Inside the assembly hall, representatives of more than 30 agencies and groups were available to meet with veterans. They included staffers from several Veterans Affairs divisions who, in some cases, were introducing their programs to interested vets.

"Many veterans you meet, they've never used the VA system," said Anne Marie Murphy, community development officer at Vancouver's VA campus.

Fred Nolan, a Marine veteran, was one of them.

"I wanted to check on services, get a sense of what is available," Nolan said. "You don't know what you need until you need it."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com