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Ventura County

Stand Down Reveals Battles Won and Lost


Ray Frymann is a Stand Down success story.

After four years of attending the three-day event designed to help veterans break the cycle of homelessness, Frymann has a job installing satellite dishes, shares a home with the woman he loves and is clean of alcohol and drugs. He has returned to the Stand Down for the past two years as a volunteer, handing out clothes to the homeless.

But for every Ray Frymann, there is a Spider.

Spider was able to get off the streets thanks to help he received at the Stand Down in 1993. But to the dismay of organizer Claire Hope, Spider was spotted this year in line at the Stand Down to get a free lunch.

"It is discouraging," Hope said with a sigh. "We try to get them transitional housing, give them detox if they need it." But some may never be able to get off the streets, she said.

"Stand down" is a military phrase referring to the movement of exhausted combat units from battlefields to a place of relative safety. The Ventura County Stand Down, held annually at Ventura College, is an intervention program that gives homeless veterans access to medical treatment, legal services, employment counseling and referrals, Veterans Affairs benefits and drug counseling.

During the Stand Down, the college's football field is transformed into a temporary barracks--with green military tents set up as sleeping quarters. Flags representing each branch of the military are displayed on the field, in front of a makeshift stage.

Friday morning, tunes from the '60s served as the soundtrack.

In addition to the social services available, veterans can get a haircut, pick up new toiletries and acquire a fresh set of clothing. And unlike previous years, volunteers expect to outfit every one of the expected 200 veterans with a new pair of shoes.

The goal, Hope says, is to give needy veterans many of the tools they need to make it on their own.

"We should not have veterans sleeping on the streets of America," she said.

But as Spider and other attendees illustrate, three days may not be long enough to make a permanent difference. Which is understandable, many of the event's 300 volunteers say.

"What tends to happen is that there are only a small portion [of veterans] who don't come back. It can take four or five years to break the cycle," said Coast Guard Lt. Col. Mary Gene Ryan, who organized medical services for the event. "Most volunteers understand that, especially the medical people. Some [veterans] may never break the cycle."

Frymann testifies to how hard it can be. He attended the first Stand Down in 1993 and found the services helpful, but he now admits that he wasn't ready to change.

"I got some good advice, and I started out on the road to try to straighten out my life," Frymann said. "But for some reason, every time I'd try to straighten out, I'd catch up with old friends and get in trouble again."

He moved off the streets four years ago and got his current job two years ago. Today, retired Chief Master Sgt. Jesse Dunlap of Camarillo, the Stand Down chairman for clothing, is glad to count Frymann among his volunteers.

"What we're hoping is that one day, we'll open the door and nobody will come through the door--they'll all have gone out and gotten jobs," said Dunlap, a 30-year Air Force veteran. "But that's not going to happen."

The effort remains important, however, as evidenced by the number of volunteers, the hours of planning and the year-round donations.

Veterans get the camaraderie that comes with being around others who have shared their experiences and understand their plight. One volunteer said the Stand Down has a family atmosphere.

"These people are living in the trenches," said Junior Garcia, an Air Force veteran and advocate for the homeless. "This is three days of not being harassed by the elements, of not worrying about the cops busting them. "

But there is more that can be done, Garcia said, speaking wistfully about a planned homeless shelter in Ventura and a veterans home that is in the works.

"After these three days, where do they go?" Garcia asked.

Frymann will be going home. But he will be back for the next Stand Down, he vows.

"They showed me that there were people who cared whether I lived or died. They showed me that was another way to go," he said. "Because they helped me, it's my turn to repay the favor."

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