What I Learned from Attending Two Large Veteran’s Stand Downs
Earlier this week I attended a Veterans Stand Down in Columbus. It was an amazing event full of great vendors, healthcare providers, and service organizations. I’ve been attending these types of events a lot this year. In the past month, I’ve been to Pittsburgh and Columbus, and these cities do not mess around. Their stand downs are huge! Columbus had over 500 Vets, Pittsburgh slightly more than that, but overall they were great events to attend and to meet Vets. The event in Pittsburgh was in a concert venue. I made a joke and said that it was like Coachella, but for people who make the world better. Meeting and helping Veterans is always great. However, the events have been more eye-opening than I would have imagined. Here is a recap of all of the Stand Downs I’ve attended this year.
The Numbers Are Staggering
Since April, I’ve attended 5-6 Stand Downs or Resource Fairs. The first few were in smaller cities, but they had pretty good turnouts. While most Stand Downs are aimed at homeless Veterans, the first few events I attended were more like resource fairs, and they were attended by a lot of individuals who were not homeless, but rather in search for everyday resources. They were great to talk to. In New Castle, PA, I met a few individuals who were still in the active National Guard. I was able to talk to them about what they would need to do after discharge to get their disability benefits. I even made some friends at these early events because there was so much downtime. Those early events may not have introduced me to many new clients, but they got my foot in the door and helped prep me for the bigger events.
Pittsburgh was eye opening. I arrived at Stage AE next to Heinz Field on a balmy September morning. The air conditioning in my rented Hyundai Tucson was on full blast. I learned so much on this day. The first thing I learned was that I don’t want to own a Hyundai Tucson. The motor was anemic. It had such little power that overtaking cars on the interstate was hazardous. I hated this car so much that I wanted to leave it parked next to Heinz Field with a note proclaiming: “I found the only thing worse at passing than your quarterback.” To be fair, the car did get me to my destination. I quickly gathered my items, took a quick Snapchat photo, and raced over to the American Eagle stage. I quickly learned that I was not in Parkersburg anymore. Outside the concert venue, there were four to five rows of tents that were at least 20 feet long. They were covering tables full of donated clothing. “This is major league,” I thought as I crossed the road.
As I entered the venue, I had one of the volunteers help me find my table. I was near an entrance, and we were crammed together tightly. There were far more vendors here than I was used to. But, that was a good thing. It was so refreshing to see so many other organizations interested in helping our Vets. Around 9:00, the doors opened, and within moments I was talking to Veterans non-stop for over an hour. When there was a break in the action I took a look around. The area was packed. I took a few moments to walk outside around lunchtime. It was during this time, when everyone was in a central location, that I understood how many people were actually there. Hundreds of people lined up for the free lunch provided by one of the vendors. It was a bit overwhelming.
Those aren’t yoga mats.
Earlier in the day in Pittsburgh, I noticed a man off in the distance carrying what looked like a yoga mat. This really excited me because yoga is a topic of discussion often in this office. Lauren Ward, our Operations Manager, is a certified yoga nut. She’s also certified as a yoga instructor. We have discussed the benefits of yoga more times than I can remember. We worked together to actually present a free class for Veterans Day last year. She even managed to get me to try it. Turns out that it’s not for me. However, a lot of Veterans find yoga very beneficial. This is especially true for Veterans suffering from PTSD. There are countless articles outlining the benefits, and there has been a lot of research to back up all of the claims. I wanted to meet these people and get them in touch with Lauren because she is a part of a charity that brings yoga to those in need, including Vets. I looked around to see if there was a yoga studio there giving out mats. I didn’t see any. I couldn’t look too hard because I didn’t want to leave my table unattended too long. As things started winding down I took another opportunity to look for this mythical yoga booth. I looked all over and found nothing. As I was walking back to my table I passed an older man who I had spoken to earlier. I noticed that under his arms he had one of the things I thought to be yoga mats. I was about to ask him where he acquired it…then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I may not be a yoga enthusiast, but I’ve seen and used the mats before. What he had was far too long and thick to be used for yoga. Instead, it was actually a mat for sleeping. The health department or someone similar was handing these thick foam mats out so that these Veterans could have a portable place to sleep…on the ground.
I felt so stupid that I didn’t realize this sooner. Of course, a privileged person from rural West Virginia would think that they were giving out yoga mats to homeless people. I love what I do. I am not pandering when I say I get excited to go to events and meet Vets. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of meeting people you regard as heroes, and forget the reason you are there.
By this time, the event was over, and I didn’t want to leave right away. I packed up the Tucson and decided to go for a walk. In the distance, I saw the football field sponsored by ketchup and decided that a lap around that might clear my head before the long drive home in the uncomfortable Korean crossover. I wanted to reflect on all of the people I met that day and what kind of struggles they must face every day. I was walking around a stadium that cost the taxpayers in Pittsburgh millions that sit vacant most of the time. On 8 Sundays a year, people pay $5 for sodas and watch their team lose to the Patriots. At the same time there are people in the parking lot struggling to stay warm. I am not saying that we shouldn’t have football. I know how much money can be generated for the city because of the Steelers. Further, the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the sponsors of the Stand Down. It was just hard seeing so much wealth in the presence of so much poverty. I also have incredible respect for the city of Pittsburgh and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania after attending so many events in this area this year. They have a huge respect for Veterans. I walked back to Stage AE. I noticed all of the people in yellow shirts cleaning up. These were the volunteers that signed up to help with the event. It was at this point that I noticed how many of them came to the event. There were well over 100 people there to help out for the day. That was really refreshing.
Some may wonder why I was so surprised by this; especially because I’ve been doing what I have for so long. It’s actually simple. Most of the Veterans I’ve met in my time with the firm are not homeless. Most are fully employed, have a home, and are able to afford a vehicle. That’s not to say that they aren’t in need, it’s just that they’ve had different circumstances.
Too much misinformation.
When I started this blog back in 2011 my goal was to get accurate information to as many Veterans as possible. While in Columbus I was reminded of how much misinformation there is out there. At one point a Veteran came up to me and said he was told that he couldn’t get both social security and VA disability. That’s not true. You can get both. Read more about this subject here. Another Veteran said that he was told that was not in the military long enough to get benefits. He explained to me that he served for two years and had an honorable discharge. That was also untrue. I had the opportunity to answer a lot of questions while in Columbus. It gave me a lot of pride. In my years here I’ve learned that a lot of Veterans haven’t applied because they were told false information. During the hours I was in Columbus, I was able to answer questions for over 50 Veterans. Many of them weren’t even aware that they could file a claim or hire an attorney.
I am so glad that I had the opportunity to meet so many Veterans this year. Interacting with these individuals gave me a sense of energy I haven’t had in a while. It was humbling yet uplifting at the same time. The most rewarding part was when people became excited to work with us. Our organization isn’t like many others out there. We really do have a passion for helping Veterans, and it shows.
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