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Veterans grateful for services, surplus and camaraderie at Stand Down

Sun., May 11, 2014

The Kootenai County Fairgrounds was turned into a one-stop shopping store Saturday for a Veterans Stand Down hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and St. Vincent de Paul.

Hundreds of veterans turned out to take advantage of 52 service providers lined up to offer assistance. They could get help with military paperwork, see the on-site doctor, get help finding housing, get a bicycle repaired, arrange dental care and pick up a box of food. Brunch was served to all who wanted it and free clothing was given away. Everyone who wanted to could also pick up an Army surplus bed roll, blanket, duffel bag, boots and backpack.

“There’s no charge for anything,” said John Davis of the VA.

The Stand Down events held across the region are designed for homeless veterans, but many people who come are not homeless, Davis said. “We have veterans who just make it week to week and every little bit helps,” he said.

The Spokane VA will see 6,700 to 7,000 veterans at the six Stand Downs it holds this year in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana, Davis said, and a large number of them have never set foot in the VA hospital. “I’ve done 83 of these,” said Davis, a Vietnam veteran. “You help a lot of people. Probably a third of these people we don’t know.”

Devon Fesler came largely because he wanted to get vaccinations for his therapy dog, Zeus. Fesler recently left the Air Force after serving two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. The large German shepherd was his bomb-sniffing dog on his last tour. “We got hit with a roadside bomb in Iraq,” Fesler said as he reached down to scratch Zeus’ neck.

Both Fesler and Zeus came home with physical and emotional wounds. Fesler was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in January and Zeus needs his own therapy dog, a bloodhound-German shepherd mix named Hercules, to help him remain calm. “He’s saved my life so many times I can’t even count,” Fesler said of Zeus.

Ken Saunders headed out the door with a duffel bag and backpack stuffed full and a box of food hoisted on his shoulder. “The stuff helps a lot,” said the Army veteran who served in the mid-1970s. “I got the stuff that I needed. Plus they had a good breakfast. They take good care of us.”

The Stand Downs also turn into something of a reunion, with veterans passing the time they spend in line swapping stories with the veterans around them. Saturday’s event was Saunders’ second Stand Down. “I got to see a lot of friends I haven’t seen since the last time, years ago,” Saunders said.

The event may give a boost to veterans, but it also provides benefits to the volunteers who run the event, Davis said. “I tell people to come here and recharge your soul,” he said. “It’s a happening.”

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