Bernard Highsmith, 67, settled into a job as a cook after serving in the Marine Corps in 1969 at a combat base south of Hue in Vietnam.
But with his military training not much in demand in civilian life, the Hempstead High School graduate never made more than $16 per hour before a layoff from a restaurant-services company cost him his job in 1993, and a cascade of service-related health problems made steady work difficult.
Highsmith was among the more than 300 veterans who on Tuesday came to a “stand-down” gathering at the Freeport Armory seeking various forms of assistance, from donated clothing to bags of food, to the camaraderie of men and women who themselves had shared military life.
“This is our Black Friday, but without having to spend money, and we appreciate it,” Highsmith said, as he browsed piles of donated clothing, searching for a pair of winter boots.
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs spends more than $180 billion annually to assist the nation’s 22 million veterans with health care, vocational training, housing, college scholarships, disability payments and other aid.
But some of the estimated 140,000 veterans living on Long Island still find themselves in need because of family crisis, the area’s high rents, or because of the struggle many former troops encounter as they transition from structured military lives to the civilian world.
Others find themselves overwhelmed by combat-related psychological problems that make it difficult to hold a job, live with family members, or even to ask for help.
Tuesday’s stand-down, which was organized by the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency, brought together some two dozen government and nonprofit provider agencies, including the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, United Veterans Beacon House, the New York Department of Labor and even a volunteer dentist.
Roger Leathers, 40, said he first came to a stand-down seeking a referral for mental health services about five years after he served in Iraq as an Army sergeant in 2003. He said he did so after undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder unsettled his family life and made it hard for him to focus on his job.
Now a program director for the East End Veterans Shelter, in Riverhead, Leathers staffed a booth at the stand-down and advised other veterans on how to get a variety of services, from veterans benefits to housing referrals.
“A lot of veterans who have a problem, maybe homelessness, maybe joblessness, they don’t know where to turn for help,” Leathers said. “They need a single place like this where they can find out where to go.”
Stand-down events are loosely modeled on the Vietnam War practice of briefly ceasing all military operations except for perimeter security to give battle-stretched soldiers a renewed sense of spirit. Troops would be allowed a day or two to take care of personal hygiene, get clean clothing, eat hot meals, write and receive letters, catch up on sleep, and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow soldiers within a safe environment.
Highsmith said even after troops return home, the cumulative effect of battle-broken bodies and combat-weary psyches can make it hard for them to ever catch up with their civilian counterparts.
“Too much combat will drive a man insane,” Highsmith said. “Every tour of duty takes something from a man’s brain.”