Monday, Sept. 19, 2011 | Sgt. Pleasant Booker speaks warmly of his tour of duty at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station as a member of a helicopter squadron that patrolled the California coast.
And before that, he was in Vietnam, where among other missions his unit braved enemy fire to recover the remains of those killed in acton, making “sure the bodies came home to family members.”
Odas Glaser was in Vietnam too. A medic with Army airborne troops, he was on board three helicopters that were shot down, but somehow he escaped serious injury.
He gave emergency medical care to U.S. troops wounded in the fighting, treating them from the time they were taken from battlefields until his helicopter made it to advanced medical aid.
But now it is Booker and Glaser who need help. Over the weekend they were among the several hundred veterans who received assistance at the first Orange County Stand Down.
At a compound of precisely aligned, baggy, green military tents on the grounds of Santa Ana College, homeless and generally needy military veterans were offered basic dental, eye and medical care, help with a variety of government forms, and job and housing information.
In the gray dawn of a cool, overcast, drizzly day, the aroma of coffee filled the compound. Former military personnel from the 1950s through the Iraq-Afghanistan years lined up for a buffet of freshly scrambled eggs, warm tortillas with cheese, sausage and orange juice.
The purpose of Stand Down, organized and run by Veterans First and other nonprofits, is to both provide immediate care to needy veterans and increase awareness of their difficulties.
Serving Those Who Served
The military term “stand down” refers to a time of relaxation, rest and refitting after a unit has been in combat or on alert or patrol.
Despite Orange County’s civic and political reputation as a strong supporter of the military, an estimated 1,500 to 5,000 veterans are homeless in the county, according to Stand Down organizers.
And though Orange County has a population of more than 3 million — more people than 20 states — it does not have a full-service Veterans Administration hospital.
The three small VA clinics in the county provide only limited care, primarily drug and alcohol abuse counseling and assistance for those with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to officials at Stand Down.
So veterans needing medical, dental and eye care must travel to the VA hospital or medical offices in Long Beach. The neediest veterans don’t have the resources to make that trip.
“These guys [veterans] endured hardships, so why do we fail them now?” asked Alex Diaz, himself a Navy veteran and one of the Veterans First organizers of Stand Down. “Homelessness is a huge problem.”
Hopes for Orange County
The goal of Veterans First, said Diaz, is to work with other nonprofits and by spring 2012 establish a permanent assessment center in Orange County where homeless veterans can receive immediate emergency shelter.
Even more ambitious than the spring deadline for a veterans’ shelter, said Diaz, is the Veterans First goal to find housing for all homeless Veterans by December 2012.
The emergency shelter and a transitional housing area will cost about $2 million, he said.
Group organizers have identified potential sites but can’t go further until they have enough money to begin actual negotiations.
“I’m very, very optimistic about opening an assessment center,” Diaz said. “We have a lot of grass roots support for this.”
State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) also supported the Stand Down and spoke to the veterans.
Saturday morning, as the veterans finished their last sips of morning coffee and several relaxed with their cigarettes, Stand Down leaders began calling roll.
When their names were called, veterans answered “here” and moved to a portable stage where they were assigned to a tent. Each tent held 22 perfectly aligned cots with new pillows and a blanket. Overnight accommodations were on-site for 500 veterans.
Showers were available in the college locker room. Veterans were offered free haircuts, new clothes and toiletries, including toothpaste and deodorant.
“I’m here to get teeth pulled,” said one former Army enlisted man who identified himself as “just another soldier.”
Glaser, the former helicopter medic, said he is living in a motor home and was hoping advisors at Stand Down could help him get an apartment. He said he learned about the event from an announcement while eating at Mary’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen in Orange.
And then there was Richard B., who preferred not to give his surname. “I’m homeless, but I bounce,” he said, using slang for those who move from one friend or relative to another to have at least a roof over their heads.
The man was in the Army for 12 years and has been struggling with unemployment in recent years.
Not only must he conceal that he is homeless to keep potential employers and coworkers from turning away from him, he must conceal that he doesn’t have a car and relies on buses.
“Everybody [who is employed] thinks everybody’s doing so well,” he said.
Booker, the former El Toro marine, was hit by a car and suffered spinal injuries when he was walking a few years ago. He can walk short distances using a cane but relies mainly on a wheelchair.
He was seeking dental care Saturday from a special San Diego Naval Medical Center unit.
In the early morning chill, he and a handful of other vets began clearing their breakfast dishes from the table, waiting for the day’s events to begin.
Booker talked about his days at El Toro, then paused. “I still love Orange County,” he said.