For a military veteran, sometimes returning home can be as difficult, if not more so, than being in the service.
“Asking for help is (expletive) embarrassing,” said Laurence Borremans, a recent Durango transplant.
The 34-year-old Army vet arrived in Durango on St. Patrick’s Day after struggling unsuccessfully for years to get back on his feet in upstate New York.
“I didn’t get any help there. I was homeless almost half the time,” he said. “It’s indicative of the system.”
In the early 2000s, Borremans was a tank mechanic, deployed twice to Iraq. While working on a tank in Kuwait, a sandstorm hit, and he fell against the machinery, popping his jaw out of its socket and losing some teeth.
That’s where his problems started. Borremans said because he smokes marijuana, his discharge documentation says he abused drugs. He’s trying to get his papers upgraded so he can get medical coverage for physical therapy. In the state of New York, this was a challenge, he said.
“I just gave up,” he said. But after moving west, Borremans said he found veterans services here were more willing to help. He recently enrolled at Fort Lewis College, and he plans to take computer engineering courses next year.
Borremans was among many regional vets who went to the La Plata County Fairgrounds for the Four Corners Veterans Stand Down on Thursday in search of assistance, food, clothing or just the company of others who served. The all-day event offered hot meals, amenities, job-hunting services and help securing benefits, legal counsel and health care.
One vet, a native of Durango who asked to remain anonymous, was attending his first Stand Down after friends encouraged him to go.
He joined the Army during the Vietnam War, but never saw action.
“I felt shame because I hadn’t fought alongside them, but I’ve been told not to look at it that way,” he said.
He struggles with the sympathy reserved for veterans.
“People go through trauma in other types of jobs, but it’s not recognized because they’re not in the service,” he said. “I have a friend who was in an industrial accident. He lost all his fingers. It’s really no different, getting your fingers cut off working for the country versus fighting for the country.”
Now 61, he lives at the Volunteers of America shelter, which he said makes him feel embarrassed.
“At my age, I should have done better and be living in my own place,” he said. “I just never established a career.”
Job placement is one of the most common struggles for vets, said Gabe Torres, who works with the Southwest Colorado Workforce Center. The organization attends the Stand Down every year to help veterans build their resumes, test for skill sets and help them find job leads.
But for others, the Stand Down is just a way to connect with veterans. That’s always been a problem for Bob Lyle, who served on the USS Ranger from 1971 to 1975. He says he’s “not very good” with people. He came to the Stand Down to get a haircut from Charley Miller, a Cortez barber who lends her services to the veterans.
“It’s a social happening,” Lyle said.
Now retired in Durango, he spends most of his time with Kiana, a three-legged adopted mutt, and volunteers her services locally as a therapy dog.
Lyle said he’s one of the fortunate ones. While enlisted, he never saw land in Vietnam. He spent his time far off the coast and away from combat in the western Pacific. Though he lost a finger while hooking up a gear cable, he said he came out otherwise unscathed and was able to find work.
He doesn’t miss the structure of military life.
“As far as the work, I liked it. But the regimen, the ‘yes, sir,’ that still affects me,” he said. “I still have a problem with authority. I don’t like uniforms.”
Event coordinator Peggy Schroder said more than 100 attended the third annual event in Durango.