September 6, 2009 in Idaho Voices

Stand Down assists veterans, families

Carl Gidlund
Photo by Carl Gidlund photo

Air Force veteran Ken Olsen who lives near St. Maries received military surplus clothing, food and “good conversations” at the Post Falls Veterans Stand Down.Photo by Carl Gidlund
(Full-size photo)

It’s hardly news that our nation’s difficult economy is hurting many people. That, of course, includes veterans and their families. But a gathering in Post Falls Aug. 29 put faces to the problem.

It was a Stand Down for North Idaho, Eastern Washington and Western Montana for veterans who need help, and it brought more than 1,300 men, women and their children to the Army National Guard Armory on Seltice Way where they received a variety of goods and services that they might otherwise not afford.

As an indicator of toughening times, 850 attended last year’s Post Falls Stand Down. A similar gathering in Sandpoint in July attracted 800, double the number of needy veterans who showed last year.

Brandia Young, an Idaho Department of Labor official, said, “We’ve seen a total change in need during the past two years.”

To prove they’re eligible for help at the Stand Down, veterans are required to show their discharge papers, a Veterans Affairs health card or retired military identification cards. Their spouses and children are allowed to accompany them.

The Idaho events are financed by a grant from the state’s Department of Labor and are sponsored by a variety of corporations and service organizations including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.

The service providers at the Post Falls Stand Down included those service organizations plus the Veterans Administration, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Community Action Partnership, Social Security Administration, Addus Health Care and the Dirne Clinic.

More than 150 volunteers were on hand to distribute free food donated by Second Harvest and others, civilian clothing donated by Thriftique, surplus military clothing and gear which arrived from New Jersey in two 53-foot trailers, to give free haircuts and to cook and serve a brunch.

There isn’t a typical veteran any more than there’s a typical American, but perhaps Ken Olsen, who lives 20 miles out of St. Maries, might pass for one. Ken was the crew chief for a B-52 bomber that flew combat missions over Vietnam. He earned a degree in structural engineering after his four years of military service, but now is 100 percent disabled with a bad heart and a muscle disorder, according to the VA.

He lives with his son, can’t work, and came to the Post Falls Stand Down to get military surplus boots, fatigue uniforms, sleeping bag and food donated by local merchants.

What else did he get? “Good conversations,” he said. “It’s great to talk with other guys you have something in common with.”

According to John Davis, a VA official in charge of providing health care for homeless veterans, Olsen might be one of the “lucky” ones; he at least has a place to live.

Davis said there are some 4,700 homeless veterans in the territory for which he’s responsible, from the eastern slope of the Cascades through seven North Idaho counties to Libby, Mont.

“Their ‘homes’ are in cars, under bridges. And a lot of them are ‘couch surfers,’ staying briefly with family members or friends. If they’re Vietnam vets, they’re usually dead by the age of 50, mostly as a result of alcohol,” according to Davis,

In North Idaho, he has an arrangement with St. Vincent DePaul, similar to contracts with other organizations in his service area. His local contract is for 20 beds in apartments and the Star and Sandman Motels.

“But they’re always filled, and there’s a waiting list,” he said. “And we’re seeing more and more homeless families.”

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