Monday, June 25, 2007

Kansas City Heart of America Summer 2007 Veterans' Stand Down

I went to my first "Veterans' Stand Down" sponsored by KC Veterans Affairs Administration. I learned many things about the care and services provided to our indigent and homeless veterans.

First, let say that I had incorrect/incomplete information regarding the place of the "stand down". I originally had information indicating it was at the Kansas City VA Medical Center. When I had called the VA volunteer services, I did not verify the location. They might have assumed I knew where it was. I was told to go to the volunteer tent at the front to sign in. So, naturally, I drove to the VA hospital and looked for the tent. I drove around several times and in the general area to find the tent and the other tents I assumed would be there. No dice.

I suppose I could have assumed that I had the wrong day or simply went home, but angels are never daunted by things like missing information or directions. So, I went to the hospital to "information" and told the young lady, "I think I'm in the wrong place". She helpfully directed me to the location at Truman and Troost in downtown Kansas City.

As I was leaving the hospital, I noticed a trike in the handicapped parking lot.

Since I am a motorcycle afficianado, I walked around looking at the skull motif and general design of the trike. That's when I noticed the license plate.

I whipped out a Soldiers' Angels card and wrote, "Thank you for serving" and placed it on the handle bars.

I finally arrived at the location and had to drive around a bit to find a parking space. The young lady at the VA hospital who gave me directions told me that I would know I was at the right place by the "long line of cars". She was right. If you are unfamiliar with the area, it is best described as "urban". I recalled an earlier conversation with the VA volunteer coordinator when I asked about the beginning and ending times for the event. She told me and then volunteered, without prompting, "Don't worry. We'll have most of our volunteers out before dark." At the time, I didn't make much of it.

Angels walk where others fear to tread.

I found the "Volunteer Registration Tent" and signed in. At this event, they did not ask for our Soldiers' Angels volunteer code though they did ask for the name of the organization I was with. As I was waiting, one of the veteran volunteers asked me if I rode a motorcycle. When I told him that I did, he laughed and said, "You can always tell. Soldiers and bikers stand the same way: at parade rest". I had to laugh at that one. I think someone has told me that before. Another volunteer asked what was on my shirt. I told her it was "Soldiers' Angels" and explained our mission. She said she was with the Patriot Guard Riders and we exchanged a few stories about missions we had participated in. The world is a small place.

I gave them each a card and thanked the veterans for serving our country.

I was given a name tag and directed to the clothing distribution area that was about to open up. Other services were being provided in the gym including assistance with taxes, legal issues and health screening. The Vietnam Veterans of America were one of the lead organizations for the stand down. One of the gentlemen explained to the news services there that they attempted to find placement for veterans with addiction, mental and physical health issues as well as the homeless through their screening.

The volunteer services coordinator at the VA had described the event as "organized chaos". That is the best description I would give it as well. As I walked through the area, I snapped a few pictures. Parks and recreation provided a stage and someone had organized a few singers with recorded back up. There were several more tents set up around the area for food and general protection from the sun. A veteran came by with a golf cart and offered me a ride up to my area. These golf carts ran all day picking up vets and volunteers to carry to the different areas.

Our area was in an enclosed basketball court. It had a control point and veterans were called by their registration group numbers to come in to the enclosure. This was to ensure that each veteran was able to receive some of each of the items being offered and to keep it safe overnight since it was going to be held again the next morning. There were long lines of veterans outside the enclosure and some were sitting under a canopy with chairs to keep out of the sun and heat.

When I walked into the enclosure and asked to be directed to someone who would assign me to a station, the gentleman at the front pointed me towards the "civilian clothes" section and said to ask "the lady in the hat". The "lady" was not actually "in charge" (organized chaos), but she did "take charge". Her name was Mary and she was from the AUSA (Association of the United States Army). I think she was an officer in her previous life. She gave me a basic rundown of the operations and what was needed in the civilian clothes section. I say "civilian clothes" section because I learned many things about a stand down.

The area was set up to walk each veteran around the perimeter to different areas providing clothing, shoes and toiletries. The first area was manned by approximately 30 volunteers from Price Waters Cooper (financial investors) wearing t-shirts saying "30,000 strong" (sound familiar? Army Strong). These volunteers were largely young people between the ages of 22 and 30 something.

The items at the front of the perimeter line were "government issue". Until this stand down, I had thought that veterans I saw on the street simply wore their own uniforms that they had retained after service. I was wrong. The reason you see veterans, who seem to have been long out of service, walking around with pieces of uniform on is because that is what the government/VA provides free at these events. Each veteran was given a "sea bag" (army issue, green ruck sack). One of the PCW volunteers would carry the bag for the veteran. They were allowed to select two pants and two shirts from the "uniform" section. These are outdated, left over uniforms from different eras including simple army green, dark green camouflage and desert BDUs (desert storm "chocolate chip").

A volunteer then carried the bag for them to the booth providing boots. Some of them were the black combat boots, but most of the boots provided were the older model "desert suede" boots. Don't be fooled by the lack of veterans being served in these pictures. I couldn't snap them until there was a "lull" in the waves of people that included, not only veterans, but veterans' dependents. For the most part, it was veterans from the Korean and Vietnam era with a few from the last two decades.

The day was extremely hot and muggy. I came prepared with a 1/2 gallon of water in a thermos. That was not enough. As they say in Iraq and Afghanistan, "drink lots of water boys and girls". Fortunately, some other folks had brought big cannisters of water and were willing to share. The VA had provided water as well, but it was quite a distance from my post and I did not want to leave because we were very busy. We provided clothes of different style, size and condition. We sorted out the clothes that had holes or stains as best as possible and tossed them in the "grab bag". Some winter coats and jackets were hung on the fence.

As the veterans were assisted to our area, I asked for their sizes and directed them to the appropriate tables. Some didn't know or were wearing clothes that were too big. These I did a best estimate and helped them search through the clothing. A few asked for specific items like jeans, khakis or, in the case of one lady veteran, asked for some shirts in blue. She had brown and green, but no blue to go with her jeans. I would guess she was a Vietnam era veteran from her hat. She was wearing camouflage pants and black combat boots with a tank top which I perceived she received at a previous stand down (Yes, women Veterans can be homeless or indigent, too).

The veterans were all friendly and some were talkative. I saw an older gentleman with a prosthetic arm who also walked with a cane. He kept telling the young man carrying his bag he could set down at the beginning of our tables and he would walk back with the things since the bag was fairly packed. The young man said he would be happy to carry the bag for him, it was the least he could do. I heard this line of conversation over and over again. I have to say, I was very impressed by these volunteers. It made me proud to be there with them.

We served over 500 veterans that day. Those young volunteers took turns manning the clothing booths and lugging ruck sacks in the heat and sun. After the vets left our section, they were directed to the final area where they were given toiletries and new underwear, t-shirts and socks.

During a lull in traffic, I spoke with Mary from the AUSA. She told me about her organization and I told her about Soldiers' Angels. Her sons principal was wounded last year in Iraq. He lost both his legs and had severe damage to his arm. I told her that we provide First Response Back Packs for the wounded at CSH (cash) units in theater, at Landstuhl and Military Medical Centers in the United States, explaining their purpose. The Stand Down was a first for both of us, although, you would never have guessed it by her organization and direction of our section. We shook hands when she left as the event wound down and she thanked our organization for supporting our troops. She said she was very glad to have worked with me that day and I reciprocated. I gave her one of our cards, thanked her for her service and said we would be happy to work with their organization to provide services.

The Stand Down Provided breakfast, lunch and dinner for the veterans and volunteers. Due to my being lost, I missed lunch and didn't want to waste anymore time looking for a fast food restaurant, so I held out until dinner. I'm not complaining. It was the least I could do considering the condition of most of the veterans we served. We had burgers, hot dogs, chips, fruit cocktail and water. I stood in line with a number of vets and volunteers who chatted amiably while we waited. I wasn't the only one who learned something new. A couple of volunteers in line were talking about their conversations with vets. One of the ladies offered that the Vet she was talking to said he was the part of the "first in". She asked him if he was a "Green Beret". I guess he told her, "No ma'am. I was a Marine."

The entire experience was a mix of sad and impressive. The event ran for three days. I would estimate about 1500 veterans would be seen. According to one of the VVA leads, that was barely a tenth of all homeless and indigent vets in the area. Kansas City has over 600,000 veterans. The area we were in was obviously chosen based on the demographics and most need.

From my observations (limited to the clothing area), the things most needed were good quality civilian clothing and shoes. Largely mens pants between the sizes of 30 and 38. Womens pants between sizes 4 and 12. Most popular were jeans for their durability. Pajamas and robes went like hot cakes. We had one robe left only half way through the day. Women's underwear were also scarce between the sizes of 4 and 6. There were plenty of women's shirts and mens, though, "medium" in mens was also scarce or were too badly worn to be handed out. Men's and women's shoes between the sizes of 6 and 12.

Those are the basics. I am going to collect more information on how and when these items are collected including where to send them. I am thinking that people would be better served to drop their used items at a VA collection point then simply dumping them at the nearest Salvation Army or Goodwill Store. While those are worthy causes, I have been told that these items are often disposed of because the store cannot store the amount they collect or they become ruined in storage before they can be put out for sale.

Stand by for information on collection and distribution.

If you are an angel, I encourage you to get involved. Find out where your local VA is and volunteer. Find out when they have an upcoming Stand Down. I am assuming at this point that every area has a stand down at some time of the year. Some may have more than one through out the year. I think, in order to understand the true needs of veterans, it is important to become involved. Beyond that, I only spent six hours out of my life at this event. Excuse me if I sound melodramatic, but it did change my attitude considerably regarding veterans affairs, if not "life altering". There are people that do this every day, all day long. Still, we have a much pressing need.

Angels should not be daunted by the task at hand. We have several huge advantages if we are able organize and take advantage of them. We are between 50,000 and 90,000 "strong" depending on active members. We have connectivity through forums and associated organizations. We already know how to collect, buy at discount and find ways to deliver massive amounts of goods and services.

The only thing we need to do is to decide that we will do it.

Angels know how to light the way.

- May no soldier go unloved