The Four Corners Veterans Stand Down at the La Plata County Fairgrounds on Saturday had more than 40 services offering a hand up for homeless or at-risk veterans. They provided tax and legal services, education, housing, clothing, job referrals, health, vision and hearing screenings, social and mental-health services, hot meals – even haircuts and showers.
“Stand down is a hand up, and not a hand out,” says the motto of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, an organization reaching out to U.S. veterans, providing support and resources to improve their lives any way they can.
The first Stand Downs were held in the late 1970s in San Diego, offering a reprieve for vets living on the streets. They were modeled after stand downs during the Vietnam War, where troops found a secure place to regroup, collect themselves – to shower, eat and rest.
On Saturday, dozens of veterans – some wearing camouflage, some displaying medals, some wearing hats with the label “Vietnam vets” – were given sizable care packages, including warm socks, food and sleeping bags.
The event, supported by Veterans for Veterans of Archuleta County, Volunteers of America, the Red Cross, Veterans Administration and La Plata and Montezuma counties, is largely due to commitment from one woman who saw a need for veterans and their families.
When Janna Schaefer’s husband, United States Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen Schaefer, was deployed to the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm, everything changed.
“When they get on that plane, you don’t know if they’re coming back or what condition they’re coming back in,” she said.
Her husband came home ill and died on Veterans Day in 1993. He was 31.
That’s when Schaefer, mother of five, knew she had to do something to make changes for servicewomen and men.
Along with Linda Mathews, she started a local chapter of the national group Blue Star Mothers, which provides support to families of deployed soldiers. Then in 2014, with the help of Richard Schleeter of La Plata County Veterans Service Office and Charlie Parnell of Disabled American Veterans, she organized the area’s first Stand Down.
“One percent of this nation serves,” she said. “It’s hard for them to come home and be forgotten.”
She said for many veterans, life after military duty can be difficult.
“A lot of them enter the military when they are 18,” she said. “For four years, they are told what to do and how to do it. A lot are combat vets. Now they’re home, and it’s ‘You served your time, now go out and function.’”
There can be trauma, healing or post-traumatic stress. Readjusting to society isn’t always easy.
Veteran Navy fire controlman Gail Brents said he feels invisible. He held records of health problems he suffers – knee and neck injuries, degenerative discs, tinnitus, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He wants to help others, but sometimes needs help himself.
“Now I’m homeless, I got a VA claim and live in the camper on the back of my pickup truck,” Brents said. “This is what I ended up with once I got done, and I’m still waiting for the VA claim to come through.”
Brents served 42 total missions in the Persian Gulf during a dangerous period in the 1980s. When he was 24, the Navy told him to write a will.
“Twenty-one missions in the Strait of Hormuz, and I can’t get a place to live? It’s about love, about having someone stand behind you so they can live free and have a choice,” he said.
Vietnam-era veteran Al Taramante got his hair cut, picked up a new winter coat and got a fat loaf of bread.
“Some of us you don’t see, but we’re here, and this kind of thing brings us out,” he said.
Evan Kikla said he and a friend – both recently discharged from the military – have been living in his car. They heard about the Stand Down from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
The two men are part of Fire Corps, a kind of fire-protection and forestry trade school for veterans. They hope to land jobs for next year’s fire season.
“We don’t make a lot of money, and they have all these wool socks and sleeping bags and stuff. It’s becoming winter time, so it helps out,” he said.
Schaefer, of Blue Star Mothers, says the Stand Down helps show veterans that the community has not forgotten about them.
“This lifts them up and says, ‘We care, you served our country, and we’re not going to let you down,’” she said.