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Veteran stand-downs on LI dwindle as help becomes more accessible

James W. Merritte, who served 19 months in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, volunteered at the veterans stand-down at the Freeport Armory.  Credit: Newsday / Martin Evans

Some came for the toothpaste and the cotton socks and the rolls of toilet paper. Others, sometimes better dressed and looking less stressed, came for the chance to have a bite to eat with former service members like themselves.

Nearly 250 veterans looking for everything from a job to a sympathetic ear came for the stand-down — a mashup of information fair, clothing giveaway and gabfest. They navigated the Freeport Armory, sitting down to shoot the breeze with an old friend or talking with representatives of more than a dozen government agencies and nonprofits brought in by the Nassau County Veterans Service agency to lend a hand. 

“I met a bunch of pretty good guys — I always do at things like this,” said Wesley Hodge, 60, who since his Army days in the 1970s has eked out a living by cutting hair. Right now, he said, he is sleeping on his sister's couch in Freeport.

These days, though, there are fewer stand-downs for Long Island's veterans after a heyday in the 2000s during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last stand-down sponsored by Suffolk County was in 2012. This year, the Northport VA Medical Center eliminated one of its two annual stand-downs. Nassau County still offers two stand-downs a year, one in summer and one in fall. The next is scheduled for Nov. 20, at the Freeport Armory.

What organizers, including Suffolk and Northport, are finding is that the resources offered at stand-downs are readily available to veterans. They can get help virtually anytime with mental health counseling, disability benefits, housing, education, medical services, employment and other needs. 

"Information about these resources, and assistance in accessing them, are already being provided on a daily basis to Veterans by social work staff at the Medical Center," Kristin Sievers, an administrative aide at the medical center, said in an email.

But for many veterans, stand-downs also provide a chance to reconnect with military life — if only for a little while. Hodge still misses his Army days, even though he left the service nearly four decades ago. He enlisted shortly after his 17th birthday in 1975 and served four years. 

Today, short on money and with no permanent place to live, Hodge said he came to the Freeport stand-down for advice, donated goods handed out by a legion of volunteers and a chance to share memories. 

“We talk about the old ways the military used to be,” Hodge said.

The stand-down is the brainchild of two veterans who, like Hodge, served during the Vietnam War era. Taking the name from the practice of combat units getting a break from fighting, Robert Van Keuren and Dr. Jon Nachison organized the first stand-down in 1988 in San Diego. Thirty years later, stand-downs number roughly 200 nationwide.

Larry Walton, 61, of East Meadow, a former Army sergeant in the Iraq War, lunched with Hodge at the armory. Walton said he had to leave his job as a Nassau court officer a decade ago after having flashbacks of his time stationed at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. During his tour, Walton convoyed fuel tankers. Roadside bombs came with the territory, he said. 

Talking with other veterans has helped Walton deal with the trauma of what he experienced.

“The older Vietnam veterans really pull me through,” he said at the stand-down. “I still feel depressed sometimes, but I feel safe here." 

Countless other veterans like Walton struggle after their time in the service. Some turn to drugs or alcohol. Some lose touch with the loved ones. Others can't find work. Others live on the street.

That first stand-down in San Diego targeted homeless veterans. In New York, more than 1,200 veterans are homeless despite a nearly 80 percent drop in the number from 2011 to 2016, state data show. The drop in homeless, the result of an Obama administration initiative, played a role in Northport's decision to cut one of its stand-downs, Sievers said.

Today's stand-downs are coordinated mostly by local governments, the VA, and community-based service providers. Volunteers do much of the heavy lifting, handing out personal items and clothes. The government agencies and providers hand out information on housing, jobs, health screenings, treatment, mental health referrals and VA and Social Security benefits counseling.

Nassau is committed to continue sponsoring stand-downs because there are veterans who won't go anywhere else to get help, said Ralph Esposito, director of the county's Veterans Service Agency. 

At a stand-down two years ago, Esposito said, a homeless veteran living under a bridge in Wantagh talked with a tax counselor. The veteran learned he was eligible for $56,000 in unclaimed tax refunds owed to his deceased parents.

“The vets need to know what benefit they are entitled to,” Esposito said. “They come for the freebies, but we pull them in with the services. There is still a need for them.”

Some 350 volunteers helped at Freeport last week. They set up tables, played music, dished up the food and distributed the socks, toothpaste and toilet paper. And they offered encouragement to veterans who came from as far away as Queens and Babylon.

Joe Ingeno, the regional head of Vietnam Veterans of America, was taking it all in — the aroma of barbecue drifting in the breeze, the Beach Boys and the Temptations blaring from a pair of speakers.

“Veterans got the help they needed — a lot of resources from a lot of different providers — and veterans appreciate it,” Ingeno said. “This is great.”


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