For the past 22 years an increasing number of homeless, American vets walk for hours, in some cases days, to reach National Stand Down, a life-changing event set in a temporary, horseshoe-shaped encampment of military-style canvas tents, camouflage netting and "water buffaloes" on the dusty fields of Veteran's Village. For three days in San Diego, Calif., weary men and women are given the opportunity to transform the immobility and despair of homelessness into the momentum necessary to get into recovery, resolve legal issues, seek employment, access health services, reconnect with community and feel "safe."Organizers describe the event as a hand up, not a hand out. It's hope dressed in casual fatigues and ready to talk turkey. When homeless veterans are ready to do the same, miracles happen.
Named after a military term describing a combat unit temporarily taken off the battle field for rest and rehabilitation, the annual July gathering offers homeless veterans respite from the inherent dangers, isolation and the extreme conditions that define the fight of their lives.
The idea was conceived in 1988 by co-founders Dr. Jon Nachison, Clinical Director of Veteran's Village San Diego and Vietnam veteran and Executive Director of VVSD, Robert Van Keuren, who believed the number of American vets living on the street was unacceptable. The event has inspired similar Stand Downs in more than 200 cities nationwide.
The philosophy: "You don't leave anybody outside the wire. If you've got wounded outside the wire, you go get them, regardless of the cost."
Sometimes the front lines are closer than we think.
Designed to remind veterans of the pride and purpose of their service, the tent city echoes camaraderie of the past, is governed by simple rules (no drugs or alcohol, no weapons, no violence, no sexual contact) and encourages empowerment through participation.
"Squad leaders" are chosen from participants in each tent group, there are conference-style workshops. A stage area allows for "open mic" opportunities that give voice to experience and gratitude. Nachison says after more than 20 years, that stage is often "packed with men and women" who testify as models of successful recovery. "It's the community [of veterans helping veterans] that works on its members," says Nachison, "and I've learned to trust that process."
"Stand Down is really about self-assessment," writes Nachison in the National Stand Down Program Design guide. "The altered state induced by the event is designed to compel veterans to take a step back from their lives and reflect on their journey. Self assessment is based on: who am I? Where do I want to go from here? and What's in my way? Participants are collecting this important data in their tent groups, in 12-step meetings, in workshops and motivational lectures and in casual conversations anywhere on the field."
"Empowerment starts with respect, received from others and reawakened within oneself," states the Stand Down Manual, "Like other homeless, these veterans are typically avoided and often shunned in their day-to-day struggle to survive. Respect for self diminishes or disappears for most under these circumstances. At Stand Down homeless veterans are accorded dignity and respect ... the result is a reawakening of innate but dormant capabilities..."
Veteran Darcy Pavich, Stand Down coordinator and chaplain for the residential treatment centers at Veteran's Village San Diego told WalletPop she's witnessed the magic first-hand.
"There was a gal that came into Stand Down several years ago ... She became a homeowner. She's working and employed. She's also working on her masters [degree] and next year she's starting on her Ph.D ... That's what happens when someone lifts themselves up and uses the services that are there. Our job is to reach out and put it out there and hope that people will grab it."
Last year at Stand Down, a record 947 men, women and children received 508 eye exams, 67 oral surgeries, 120 dental extractions, 1,534 hygiene kits, 12,760 meals, 540 identification cards, 196 counseling services, legal assistance, hair cuts, employment opportunities and more.
Pavich admits, however, "putting it out there" takes almost a year's worth of planning, including gathering together an army of 2,500 volunteers, and more than 150 community organizations and agencies. She reports the program has run "in the black" for the past 13 years but says, "it takes more and more work to find money."
Still, she asserts, the program won't turn away homeless vets in need. "We will find a way to make room for anyone on Friday who comes looking for services ... we don't have a maximum. We might have to expand our gates a bit."
In spite of critics who point at repeat attendance and failed resolutions, Pavich says it's the success stories that keep her going.
"We have a volunteer rally the night before Stand Down opens," she explains, "and the majority of people who attend that rally used to be participants. They come back as volunteers, and they come back to show others you can do this. You might not walk out of here with a home, but they can give you tools where you can get a job and you can get your life turned around. They are walking miracles -- walking hope ... it's humbling to be a part of such an incredible group of men and women."
In fact, Nachison reports, "Our fastest growing segment of volunteers are former participants, who have gotten off the street and return in a new leadership role. These formally homeless veterans continue to enrich the program and are helping us grow a culture, modeled on hope. They recently started an organization, The National Stand Down Alumni Association, with the mission of creating a year-round support system for homeless veterans."
On a recent phone call to Veteran's Village, a Stand Down Alumni answered the phone. "It saved my life," the man said of the program, "like it's done for a lot of people here."
Unfortunately, Pavich predicts a growing need for Stand Down. "We have veterans who may have only been out of combat for a year that wind up homeless. We are seeing them at what I consider an alarming rate compared to the vets from Vietnam who started becoming homeless 10 years or so after their experiences at war. [Now], it's happening so rapidly."
Pavich blames the trend on several things: "Post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and how quickly we bring our young men and women out of combat and back into a civilian world." Pavich explains, "you know they had months of training to become an effective soldier or sailor, airman or Marine, and we give them two weeks of this is how you get out of the service."
As a result, the transition is difficult. "They don't fit," says Pavich, "They don't belong to a particular group anymore. They may be 20, but they're not 20. So they don't fit with family, they're not the same person that left. Other people don't understand."
Going forward, Pavich says she would like to see more full-service providers for veterans around the country. More places, "where we bring people off the street and treat their mental illness, their addictions, provide them job training; provide a complete continuum of care including after care -- and they go back out into the community as homeowners, Ph.D. seekers ... It's not enough just to give them a roof over their heads because they don't know how to keep it there."
When asked for other ways to help homeless vets, Pavich answered, "I won't pull any punches. One of the things that we always need is money. Financial donations via our website, or financial donations to any organization assisting homeless veterans to get them the help they need." Pavich clarifies the giving should be accountable, to an "appropriate organization."
"Not just giving them money on the street," says Pavich, "because that's not going to help them."
The bottom line for Pavich, however, is that the people who once pledged to leave no one behind deserve the same in return.
Stand Down organizers report that 96% of the homeless veterans attending and registering at the event received honorable discharges from the military. "People think they're homeless because they're bums," says Pavich, "but they're homeless for a lot of reasons. They served our country honorably."
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