U.S. military Veterans come to U’s West Bank for rest, recuperation

Than Tibbetts

Olive-green tents stamped “U.S.” formed a temporary city on the West Bank recreation fields last week.

And for a few days, the area looked more like a military base than a ball field, as camouflaged personnel roamed the grounds.

But the volunteers who helped with the 13th annual Minnesota StandDown were still fighting a battle. They were fighting to help the homeless.

More than 600 homeless military veterans entered the three-day event for rest and recuperation.

Bill Lindboe, president of Minnesota StandDown, compared the event with the 1989 Kevin Costner film “Field of Dreams.”

“If you build it, they will come,” Lindboe said while organizers set up the grounds.

They came on foot, on bikes and in cars. What they had in common was the need for a little help.

The term “stand down,” in a military context, means a period of rest and recuperation given to troops in times of war. And in a time of war, these former soldiers came for some peace of mind.

They came for a good meal, a bed to sleep on, showers, shaves and haircuts, and services varying from veteran’s benefits to emotional and psychological support.

Late Friday afternoon, temperatures reached their highest point while veterans milled around outside and lounged around on the cots in the tents. A group watched television in another tent.

Former Air Force Sgt. Jeff Hale said he walked several miles through Minneapolis to get to the event. He is currently homeless.

Hale said he was married, but left Springfield, Ill., to come to the Twin Cities. Alcohol and drug abuse problems led him to seek treatment at an Oxford House, an organization providing several drug-free group homes in St. Paul.

Although Hale’s struggles with alcoholism and drugs are not uncommon – almost half of homeless veterans considered themselves to be alcoholic or chemically dependent in a 2003 study by the Wilder Research Center – things are looking up.

He said he started working as a recycling-truck driver two days before the StandDown event.

Hale spoke articulately and at length about politics and his favorite topic, history. His eloquence perhaps runs counter to the stereotype of a typical homeless person.

Jessica Arndt, who was working under the Minnesota Veterans Homes tent, said her experiences working with homeless veterans have changed her perspective.

“I used to think it was just drug addicts and alcoholics,” she said.

She said there is a perception that many people are homeless because they choose to be.

“That’s not always the case,” she said. ” ‘Homeless’ isn’t always living under a bridge.”

General trends do emerge from the 2003 Wilder Research Center study. Men represent 93 percent of all homeless veterans.

Arndt is one of dozens of people who work to benefit the condition of homeless veterans at the event each year. Among others, was former Master Sgt. David Olson, a 24-year veteran of the Air Force and University urban studies graduate.

Olson said the event is “so rewarding,” and that the ultimate goal would be to not have to hold the event. He added that the atmosphere of the event is enough to help some of the veterans.

“The tents bring them back to maybe the last time they felt good about themselves,” he said.

Some of the veterans still exhibit the physical and emotional scars of their experiences in the military.

Combat veteran and former Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Jones said he served two tours of duty, spending six years around the world in places such as Grenada, Lebanon and Panama.

“I’ve seen the horrors and seen the stories,” he said, pointing to areas of shrapnel wounds on his hands. “It’s only between me and God. He knows how many I’ve killed.”

Between looking off into the distance and miming looking through the scope of a rifle, Jones talked about how his philosophy changed during his time in the military.

“I don’t believe there’s a heaven and a hell,” he said. “Ain’t nothin’ funny. Ain’t nothin’ stupid.”

Wearing a worn Colorado Rockies baseball cap and a faded purple-collared shirt, Jones said he lives under bridges and spends his time downtown.

Jones said he used to use cocaine, but the habit became too expensive. At times, he said he is alternately surprised or wondering why he is still alive.

“I still got my digitals,” he said, pointing to his fingers.

Jones said he donates blood and plasma because he can help save a life.

“Somebody could use it,” he said.

Jones, who is an American Indian with ties to the Mille Lacs area, said his race has been a factor in his treatment as a homeless person.

“I’ve been hassled down on the streets. For what, the color of my skin?” he said. “It’s sad but it’s true.”

The 2003 Wilder study shows that homeless veterans are disproportionately minorities in Minnesota, with blacks and American Indians representing the bulk of that group.

Hale left the military with a different perspective from Jones.

Hale said many Americans don’t appreciate the advantages afforded in this country.

“Why do you think (immigrants are) coming over here? It’s great here!” he said. “We support the world. I’ve been there. I know.”

For many of the veterans, survival is stripped down to its simplest forms: food, clothing and shelter. The event looks to cover those three needs for a couple of days.

Former Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Erik Appenzeller said the clothing comes from soldiers who are discharged or, in some cases, killed in action. The tent was filled with hats, boots, shirts, coats, winter jackets and long underwear – all in olive or desert camouflage.

As for Jones, “I’m naked without my backpack,” he said.

When the volunteers called “dinner,” the veterans filled their stomachs with heaping plates of spaghetti, garlic bread, salad and cake.

Most of the veterans might be without permanent homes, but some manage to afford amenities such as a cell phone. Halfway through dinner, one veteran’s cell phone rang with AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

During the meal, a few veterans talked about their trials with the Metro Transit bus system.

At the barber’s tent, Gloria Pederson was busy giving haircuts to shaggy veterans.

“What do you want?” she asked one man.

“Less hair,” he replied.

Many of her customers at the event seemed satisfied to have a fresh haircut, let alone the style of his or her choice. Pederson, a veteran of the Army National Guard, made sure everyone left the chair happy.

Despite the occasional Army-Navy rivalry or interservice cheap shot, a common theme can be heard throughout the conversations of the veterans at the event.

Hale called it “camaraderie.”

Appenzeller described a sort of ragtag band of brothers and sisters in service.

“We’re a big family,” he said. “All the military guys.”