Yuba-Sutter Stand Down- Day 2

We arrived at the grassy basin once again on Friday, the weather identical to Thursday. The difference today though, the population of veterans and volunteers had more than doubled! We could tell immediately that we were going to have a very active day. More tents and RV’s had been set up, most for healthcare services. The Red Cross also sent in a truck and representatives were handing out various good to the vets and their families.

The strange part about it was that this event on the second day almost seemed like base camp in a war zone. In a way, it sort of was—just a very different type of war. This was a war on homelessness, a crusade to remember the forgotten, a battle to provide. The much needed reinforcements had arrived. The wounds of the warriors were not plainly visible, but look close enough, and you could see them as clear as the northern California sun. That is why so many volunteers showed up—to tend to the wounds that had been left untreated for so very long.

I had the chance to speak with a VA social worker who was in attendance that day, named Mike Miracle. Mike was a very pleasant individual with a calming demeanor. Mike had served in this capacity for 37 years with the Army and the VA. He told me something that really had never occurred to me. He said that he still has clients from WWII and Korea that cope with PTSD in some capacity. Can you imagine having to cope with troubling memories for 60+ years? It makes you respect these men and women even more.

The second day was much warmer than the first, but it didn’t stop the massive show of support. I met several veterans who were overwhelmed with gratitude from the event. Lanny Montgomery, a Vietnam veteran was all smiles when I spoke to him. Lanny started a PTSD support group for veterans in the area who couldn’t seem to find the help they were looking for. He said that simply discussing the common problems that PTSD causes, amongst a group of people who know exactly how you are suffering, can make such a big difference. He also mentioned that it was actually his group that helped to pave the way for such Stand Down events in the area, and that it flattering to know that DVNF had come all the way from DC to help out.

As the day began to wind down, I caught a glimpse of something across the basin and became interested. People kept approaching this gentleman who was wearing a red blazer, and then he would stop and take a picture with them. Assuming he was some sort of celebrity I began to walk closer to the tent he was under. I soon realized that this man was much older than anyone else I had seen at the Stand Down. Then, I figured out who he was. His name was Lenard Yates—one of the original Tuskegee Airmen! He was kind enough to let me take a picture of him, as well as another veteran who was just as eager to meet Mr. Yates as I was. What a great way to end the day.

Lenard Yates, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen

We left Marysville overwhelmed at how much effort was put into this Stand Down. We were also pleased knowing that veterans in this part of California are in good hands thanks to the appreciative and compassionate people that make up the community.

Yuba-Sutter Veterans Stand Down – Day 1

We arrived at the event in Riverfront Park Thursday morning and everyone was in high gear. Tents set up, people bustling about every which way. The location at the park was perfect. All tents were set up in a shallow basin adjacent to the river. The grass, a rich green with oak trees scattered sparsely across the plot—not overwhelming the area, but providing an ideal amount of shade. Naturally, for a late August day in northern California, the sun was bright, and there was not a cloud in the sky.

The sounds of the leaves faintly brushing around in the trees and voices filling the air, only occasionally interrupted by the sounds of a Harley’s deep, perpetual groaning. The motorcycles, as you can imagine, were abundant, for these were predominantly Veterans of Vietnam, “Eternal Riders” as they call themselves.

Three whole days in late August were dedicated solely for the benefit of veterans in California. The providers for this Stand Down ran the gamut: local mental health groups, the American Legion, local salons, VA mobile vet center, Salvation Army, massage therapists, and many others were present. Recology, the waste services company for the Marysville area even provided the food for the first day! A local salon gave free haircuts for two whole days as well. Talk about a show of support!

As I stood on the edge of the basin observing the layout of the event, a peculiar smell hit me. When I discovered the source, I was rather intrigued. It was coming from the American Indian Veterans Association (AIVA) tent, where they were burning sage. I became interested in the organization. I spoke at length with one of its representatives, Pedro Molina, or “Chief Mo” as he was known. He told me about AIVA and its outreach and advocacy work on behalf of Native American veterans. He informed me that California has roughly 20,000 Native American Veterans and that AIVA’s goal was to reach out to all of them, especially in the rural areas and let them know of the benefits they are entitled to.

Chief Mo

Chief Mo was serious about the organization’s mission, but he was certainly not without humor. He was a member of the Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, which was not recognized by the government until 1979. He went on to tell me about his being drafted in 1970, saying, “When I got drafted I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony—I can’t win a game of bingo to save my life, but I got drafted  number three!” The laughs continued as he told me he began his Army career as an airborne cook. “Basically, I was jumping out of a plane with a stove on my back,” he joked.

Another unique organization caught my attention. The Healing Light Institute was right next to the women’s health tent that DVNF sponsored for the event. I was fortunate enough to speak to the director of the organization, Donna Arz. She started what was called the Forgotten Soldier program as a way to treat veterans through alternative therapy, such as guided imagery, therapeutic massage, holistic nutrition, and grief counseling, to name a few of their services. Donna and her associate, April Anderson, told me how common it is for veterans with PTSD to turn to alternative therapy when medication and other common treatments are not successful. It was at that point they told me about the suicide prevention program they have, and how they saved a decorated Marine from ending his own life. I was in awe when I watched the news report about it.

I also had the chance to speak with Mike Nichols, the President of Yuba Sutter Stand Down. Mike himself is a Vietnam veteran who works daily to help his fellow veterans. He said that 638 veterans attended the Stand Down in 2011, and that they were expecting even more this year. Mike was able to paint a picture of the veteran mindset for me. I asked him why he thought that there were so many homeless Vietnam veterans. He stated the obvious facts about how unappreciated Vietnam vets were upon their return, but then he elaborated. As he put it, most of these veterans are homeless because they choose to be. They had been cast aside in society long ago, and it is something that stays with them.

When Mike said this, I began to look around at all the veterans in attendance. Long gray hair, scraggly beards, cigarettes permanently fixated upon their lips, and draped in black leather, these men were true warriors. Not just because of their time on the field of battle, but because they have been fighting their whole lives, and still do today. Most that you might greet will give you a brusque “hello,” and move on, cautious of your motives. These are a tough bunch of men, who have never truly seemed to give any sort of trust to anyone in society that wasn’t one of their own.

As April Anderson said to me, so many of these vets have been carrying a heavy burden their whole lives. The hardened expressions on the leathery faces of these veterans tell a story that is difficult to comprehend for those of us who will never experience what they have. Their experience and the difficulty of their lives cannot be perceived by an outsider, which is why they band together in homogenous subcultures—a fraternity of the forgotten, trusting only one another.

Though this may be their perception, it is not the reality. While most won’t understand the intricacies of their struggles, there were hundreds of civilians in Marysville that day that were there to remember, honor, apologize, thank, and pay homage to the men and women who were shown a disrespect that cannot be forgiven.

As Congressman John Garamendi stated in his opening remarks for the event, “We thank them for all they have done, and it is our responsibility as citizens to serve them.” That was the purpose of the Stand Down, to serve the veterans that fell through the cracks.