Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 30
Stand Down Santa Barbara County is back for a second year of serving veterans in need
BY AMY ASMAN
A stand-down, in military terms, is a brief stop in offensive action to give soldiers time to rest and regroup during a mission.
Stand Down Santa Barbara County takes that concept and applies it to life after the military. The community collaboration’s mission is to provide veterans who are homeless or struggling a safe place to come together and receive assistance from numerous nonprofit and government service providers.
At the first-ever Stand Down event last October at the Santa Maria Fairpark, 230 tough-as-nails veterans spent the day getting pampered. Upon entering the Fairpark, each veteran was greeted by an active-duty serviceman or woman from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Together, they enjoyed two meals prepared by local volunteers, a color guard ceremony, and a concert. The soldiers also helped the veterans pick out new clothes and shoes.
Monica Diaz, Stand Down’s clothing and toiletries chairperson, recalled an exchange she witnessed between a veteran and a serviceman.
Diaz told the Sun that the vet, who was homeless, came to her station to get sized for a pair of free, waterproof boots. He sat down, took off his worn, dirty shoes, and put on a clean pair of socks.
“And then the serviceman got down on his knees and put the veteran’s shoes on for him,” she recalled. “And the veteran got this huge grin on his face. You should have seen it.
“I thought right then and there, ‘this is why I’m doing this. This makes it all worth it,’” she said. “And I have to keep doing this. … It makes you wonder how many more veterans we have out there who don’t have someone to help them put their shoes on.”
Diaz—a Gold Star mom who’s son, Joseph, died in 2004 from injuries sustained while serving in Iraq—said her story about the shoes is a simple analogy for the community’s responsibility to its veterans.
“We are in a time of war. It should be a constant reminder to us that there are veterans in our community who need us, not just now but all the time,” she said. “We can’t forget any of them. They didn’t forget us while they were out there working. They did their job; now let’s do ours by helping them.”
This year, the county’s veterans will get another daylong event thanking them for their services.
The Stand Down will kick off at 9 a.m. on Oct. 19 at the Santa Maria Fairpark with a free breakfast provided by the Santa Barbara County Cattlemen’s Association and cooked by the Santa Maria Elks Lodge. There will be a welcome ceremony featuring 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino and some officials from the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
“If [the veteran] served one day, then Stand Down is good for him. He doesn’t even have to be homeless,” Lavagnino said during a recent outreach meeting.
He said the Stand Down volunteers don’t even care if the veteran was dishonorably discharged or if he has a record with minor charges.
“It’s non-confrontational. We made sure the cops aren’t going to show up and harass them,” Lavagnino said. “And nobody’s going to steal anything from them.”
He explained that the veterans who attend will be asked for their Social Security numbers to confirm that they served in the military. They will also have the option to participate in a survey so they can be logged into Common Ground Santa Barbara County’s vulnerability index, which helps connect people with such vital services as housing, health care, and more.
Just like last year, there will be close to 70 service providers at the event offering everything from haircuts to dental screening to legal services. Veterans’ furry companions can get in on the action, too, as there will be micro-chipping, grooming, and licensing services available.
Sandy Agalos, a representative for Lavagnino who organized much of Stand Down, said a key feature at this year’s event will be women’s health services. Female veterans will be able to get pap smears, mammograms, and even manicures and pedicures. Employees from the North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center will also be present to council women—and men—who are victims of sexual assault or abuse.
According to information from the Department of Veterans Affairs, it’s estimated that one in five women and one in 100 men experience sexual trauma while serving in the military. That includes unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.
In fact, sexual trauma is one of the main reasons veterans become homeless, as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), mental illness, and substance abuse. It’s estimated that half of the country’s homeless veterans suffer from a mental illness, and 70 percent of them experience substance abuse.
Lavagnino said one thing that surprised him at last year’s event was the number of young veterans in need of assistance.
“There were some really young guys there,” he said, “really young guys.”
One of the best things about the event, Lavagnino said, was having all of those aid organizations together in the same place: “If somebody said, ‘oh, we have a problem with this’—boom—[another said], ‘well, we have a whole department dedicated to that.’”
Junior Godinez, a veteran living in Santa Maria, said he got his life “pretty much in order” at last year’s event.
Godinez walked into Stand Down with two minor warrants, and he had recently had his driver’s license revoked. At Stand Down, he found out from the Department of Motor Vehicles that his license was revoked because he owed child support. He paid that at a booth for Child Welfare Services and then went back to the DMV to get his license. He also took care of his warrants with the Public Defender’s Office.
“Without Stand Down, I could still be down in the gutter. It helped me get my life back,” he said. “Before that, I was always looking over my shoulder. If I saw a cop, I’d think he was there for me.”
Getting his legal issues taken care of, he said, “was a big relief.”
“I would recommend that anyone who needs assistance go over there and take advantage of the services,” he said. “It’s the best thing going on on the Central Coast, and I hope it lasts a long time.”
Luckily for Godinez and other veterans like him, Stand Down’s organizers and volunteers are determined to make it last for years to come.
Lavagnino said the event has received ample support from the community through donations, from something as small as a pair of socks to a check for $5,000.
His hope for this year is those supplies and services will reach even more veterans.
“But even if only 20 people show up and we only help one family, it will still be worth it,” he said.
Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at email@example.com.