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Hundreds of veterans seek help at Freeport stand-down

On Tuesday, the Veterans Stand Down event was held at the Freeport Armory, offering veterans VA enrollment, support services, pantry items, clothing, haircuts, and one-on-one counseling provided through representatives from federal, state and local agencies -- and a free BBQ. (Credit: Danielle Silverman)

Richard Kayatt gathered another forkful of baked beans from a plate that also cradled a hot dog and a grilled burger, and spoke of why he came to the Freeport Armory on Tuesday. 

“I need help,” he said simply. “I’m living in a warehouse.”

Kayatt, 72, a Vietnam-era veteran, was among hundreds of veterans who came in search of donated food, clothing and other assistance at a “Stand Down” organized by the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency.

Veteran stand-downs, which since the Vietnam War have offered help and camaraderie to former soldiers down on their luck or just seeking the company of kindred spirits, continue to draw hundreds of veterans even as America’s recent wars recede further from the public’s consciousness.

Tuesday’s gathering also featured a host of government and nonprofit organizations offering psychological aid, homeless services, employment advice and other assistance. Stylists from the Barber and Beauty Institute of New York, a Hempstead-based trade school, serviced a steady stream of the unshorn in a makeshift shop off the armory’s main hall.

Although federal, state and local governments offer a multitude of programs designed to assist individuals who have served in the military, volunteers who helped organize the stand-down said combat-related psychological scars, or even the trauma of enduring dangerous military training can make it hard for some veterans to fully transition back to civilian life.

They say stand-downs can help veterans who fall through the cracks.

“It’s things like this that keep them from spiraling into the dark side,” said Bill Stegman, president of American Legion Riders Post 1033 in Elmont, a motorcycle club that donated $500 to support Tuesday’s stand-down.

Stegman said he was happy to help because he struggled himself after leaving the Navy as a petty officer third class in 1993.

“It’s really quite humbling when we can give out clothing, give out shoes,” Stegman said. “When I came home from the service, there weren’t things like this.”

Nassau Veterans Service Agency director Ralph Esposito said although the county has been offering stand-downs for the past 30 years, dwindling financial support from charitable organizations is making it harder for the county to keep them going.

He said it costs about $8,000 to rent tents, tables and other equipment needed to host the gatherings — costs that have not been subsidized by the county in years. 

He said although veterans organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have provided most of the money used to stage the event, their declining membership has meant less money has been available in recent years.

“It’s getting harder and harder to do this every year,” Esposito said.

But many of the veterans who stood in lines that snaked out the front door for an opportunity to fill bags with donated canned goods, athletic shoes, summer clothes or toiletry items said the help was welcome.

Kayatt, who grew up in Merrick, said he had been caring for his mother until she died two years ago and her house was sold. 

He said with an income only about $1,000 per month in Social Security and veterans benefits, he quickly fell into homelessness and now lives in a warehouse that a friend owns in Oceanside.

He said he came to the stand-down to look for clothing and a bite to eat, as a way to save money. But he said the comfort of being around other former service members provided a comfort beyond the socks, foodstuffs and other things available at the stand-down to carry home with him.

“It’s the camaraderie, it’s the food,” he said. “It’s everything.”

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