Serving those who served
Thousands of military veterans spent the day Friday at the National Guard Armory and Durham County Memorial Stadium connecting to services, nonprofits and other veterans.
The 2013 Bull City Stand Down drew about 6,000 people, said organizer Darryl Hicklen, program director of USA Veterans Help.
The Bull City Veterans Support Network was the lead organizer and, along with 120 community providers, Hicklen said, planned the event that give veterans information, haircuts, legal assistance, housing benefits, substance abuse and mental health assistance, basic medical care, a dental clinic, flu shots, showers, food, clothing, toiletries and camouflage bags to carry it all.
Hicklen grew up in a veteran household in Charlotte and said this is a way to give back.
“If we can serve veterans, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “The most important person today is the veteran.”
New to the Stand Down this year was a dental clinic in a bus provided by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, through a ministry of North Carolina Baptist Men. Durham dentist Dr. Moses Watson and his staff worked on two patients at a time while more veterans waited in line outside.
Two hours into the event, he had seen four patients and was doing extractions, restorations (fillings) and cleanings. In one dentist chair was veteran Charles Bowling, who was waiting for his gums to numb before having a restoration and extraction. Bowling said he learned about Stand Down through another veteran, and the dental clinic was the first place he stopped. Bowling served in the Army from 1977 to 1994.
At the stadium, the Vietnam Veterans of America had a table set up with information, giveaways and a map of Vietnam. Member Angelo Carmen said they came to share information about their organization and to form brotherhood or fellowship with other veterans. Carmen served in the Army from 1969 to 1971 and spent 1969 in Vietnam.
“If we don’t help each other, nobody’s going to help us. That’s a feeling Vietnam veterans have – if not each other, we’d have nothing,” Carmen said, noting that’s starting to change.
Over at a big tent where veterans received new clothes, toiletries and bags, Stand Down steering committee member Curtis Gay said the event was going well. He’s a Vietnam veteran, too. Gay said that many veterans were seeking housing, health care and legal services to expunge records to help get benefits. The Stand Down is so much easier to navigate than the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said, because all the services are in one place and included many nonprofits, too.
“This is our opportunity to connect them with services they need,” Gay said.
Inside the armory, Curtis Barrett navigated the rows of information tables. He served in the Army from 1980 to 1992, including Desert Storm, Panama, Grenada and Somalia, he said. He came to Bull City Stand Down because there is a lot of run-around trying to get benefits through the Veterans Administration, he said.
“This isn’t something given to us, we earned it. I don’t want my government to turn its back on me when I need it the most,” Barrett said. He said he has dealt with “nightmares and everything else you can think of” after serving in the Army. He wore a hat that read: “Dysfunctional veteran. Leave me alone.”
It’s a slow boat to receive benefits, he said, but without them he’d be sleeping in the woods in a tent. Now he’s living at Urban Ministries of Durham and once VA benefits come through, wants to take classes at Durham Technical Community College.
“After you go through fire and after you go through rain, there’s daylight ahead as long as you don’t give up,” Barrett said. Regardless of the outcome, serving was worth it, he said.
Stand Down also drew veterans of recent wars. Cornelious Turner served in the Army from 2005 to 2009 and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2005 to 2006. He came to Durham last year after a bad divorce and stayed in a shelter the first month and a half. Now he has an apartment and works in housekeeping at the Durham VA Medical Center, “supporting and taking care of other veterans,” he said.
Turner was waiting for a haircut from barbers at D&D Barber Institute, founded by Melvin Brown. Brown said he is from a family of veterans and understands their sacrifice.
Turner said he also came to learn better ways to save money and find different housing.
“I appreciate this event today. It’s a blessing – for homeless, for middle poverty, those in poverty,” Turner said.
“They need our support because we fought for our country and gave it our all. I wish they could do this every month,” he said.