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Hand Offered to Homeless Veterans

Services: Ventura College hosts the annual Stand Down, with doctors and other professionals ready to help former soldiers.

July 28, 2001|ROBIN SHULMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dozens of homeless veterans arrived at Ventura College on Friday to participate in the 2001 Stand Down, the county's ninth annual event providing a wide range of social services.

Onetime infantrymen and other servicemen and women are taking part in the three-day event.

The vets can talk to professionals about almost any issue. They can see a doctor, a podiatrist, an optometrist or a psychologist. They can clear up minor legal problems or get a haircut. They can talk with a counselor who specializes in post-traumatic stress syndrome. They can get advice on Social Security benefits or religious questions.

They also can read and talk among friends who share a common history. Stand down is a military term for relaxation.

"It's good to get back and talk to the guys," said David Camarillo, 55, of Ventura, who normally sleeps in his truck. "They understand."

The veterans sleep on narrow cots in about a dozen khaki tents pitched on the college football field. Army and Air Force volunteers serve meals. Veterans collect plastic bags filled with new pants, shirts, shoes, toothbrushes and soap.

The Ventura Stand Down, one of about eight such events statewide, will serve 200 veterans this weekend, said officials. Participants arrive by foot and by bus from San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

"They can access a myriad of services so they can break out of the cycle of homelessness," said Ventura event founder Claire Hope.

About one-third of the adult homeless population has served in the military, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. On any given day, as many as 250,000 veterans are living on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point in the course of a year.

The number of homeless Vietnam-era veterans is now greater than the number of those who died in service during that war, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Small numbers of Desert Storm veterans are also among the homeless.

"Some of them are so bothered by the memories--the intrusive thoughts, the nightmares--that it's difficult to function," said Robert Reed, a Santa Barbara Vet Center therapist offering "readjustment counseling" from a tent.

Camarillo said his nightmares and drinking began when he came home from Marine Corps service in Vietnam. He was easily distracted from his studies and haunted by the fact that few of the men in his unit survived. He couldn't hold down a job.

Several veteran volunteers said they know that some of their colleagues have had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life.

"I went to the war and came back and led a successful life," said Ray de la Torre, a former Air Force sergeant distributing pants and shirts organized by size. "But these guys that are standing on these lines--for some reason they didn't get the opportunity I did."

Rocky Mesa, 44, who attended past Stand Downs as a participant, is now in a drug treatment program and has volunteered to help. He made the rounds with a couple of packs of cigarettes, offering fellow veterans a light and some advice.

"It kind of hurts to see them back here year after year because I've been there," Mesa said.

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