Nearly 150 veterans from across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and 47 federal-, state- and community-based service agencies converged in downtown Johnson City on Friday for a Homeless Veterans Community Stand Down organized by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home.
Held at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church and Good Samaritan Ministries, the event was organized to help veterans who are homeless, on the street or in a variety of transitional settings get services to help them get back on their feet.
Patterned after a military stand down in which front-line soldiers are taken out of combat for medical attention, food, clothing and rest, the event included a distribution of military surplus rucksacks, sleeping bags, boots and clothing, free eye exams and glasses, free haircuts, a barbecue lunch and plenty of fellowship.
But more importantly for many of the veterans was the information they found in a resource fair setup in the church fellowship hall that focused on such essentials as untapped veterans benefits, legal assistance, health care, mental health care, housing, employment and education.
Jeremy Adams, a 27-year-old Army veteran with multiple service-related injuries suffered during his two years in Iraq, was among the veterans served. With an income of $129 a month in combat-related disability benefits awarded to him for a shrapnel injury that left him without use of his right hand, Adams recently moved from the VAMC domiciliary to a transitional veterans group home in Johnson City.
A ruling on his appeal of the 10 percent disability award to include compensation for PTS and the residual effects of a head injury suffered in a roadside bombing in Iraq is pending.
“The dom took me in and got me into a group home so I can back on my feet and be proud of myself again,” the humble young hero said at lunch at the church. And with his discovery of a couple of job opportunities for people with disabilities, a Housing Administration veterans program for home ownership, a local American Legion chapter he would like to join and an avenue to enrollment at East Tennessee State University, he felt the Stand Down had put him well on his way.
Linda Rogers, a 52-year-old veteran who served three years with the Army in Germany, said she was among the first to arrive at the Stand Down and been anticipating the free legal services and clothing distribution it offered for months.
In the morning she was most pleased to find new clothing “with the tags still on them,” a Habitat for Humanity application that will allow her to begin work toward home ownership, a few small gifts and a lot of candy she would give to her grandchildren. In the afternoon, she planned to speak to the lawyers on hand about a disability claim on the combination of mental health issues for which she spent two years in the VAMC domiciliary before accessing housing through the Shelter Plus program.
“I’m not homeless,” she said. “But I think its a really good thing what they’re doing for the veterans. I’ve had a blast today. I learned some good things today and I got to meet a lot a good people. Just the fellowship is good for people who are fighting depression.”
Larry Garland, a 59-year-old Vietnam veteran from Elizabethton, came to the Stand Down for some much-needed glasses and enjoyed the gifts and the barbecue lunch he and his wife were treated to while he waited.
“I can see far off,” he said. “But as far as reading goes, my arm’s not long enough anymore.”
David Shields, the social work outreach specialist with the VAMC Homeless Program who coordinated the event, said he was pleased by the turnout, the services delivered and one most fortunate connection in particular.
While unloading military surplus clothing for the Stand Down on Thursday evening, Shields said volunteers discovered a boot box containing a single, size 9 left-foot boot without a mate. On Friday morning, a combat veteran and right-leg amputee who happed to wear a size 9 boot in came in to peruse the surplus.
“It was a perfect fit for him and kind of serendipitous,” Shields said happily. “We’re going to make this an annual event. It’s been 20 years since Johnson City has had one, and we’re on going to keep it up from here on,” he said.