Military veterans get help from local attorneys, free clinic

Latasha Webb

Veterans from across the state gathered at the University’s Law School on Friday for Operation StandDown 2001, a free clinic providing services such as legal assistance, medical care and spiritual guidance to veterans.

During war, “stand down” is a term referring to a time when combat units are allowed a safe place to rest and recover from exhaustion. Vietnam veterans Robert VanKeuren and Dr. Jon Nachison created a community-based recovery for homeless veterans who need it after leaving the service.

Operation StandDown, which began in San Diego in 1988, provides food, clothing, medical and legal assistance, job counseling and referral, mental health assistance and companionship.

Peter Riggs, a 47-year-old father and Gulf War veteran, said he feels he and other veterans deserve more credit and more help adjusting to life outside the military.

“There are a lot of homeless vets. I believe the largest percent of homeless people are ex-vets or ex-military,” Riggs said.

Since his discharge in January 1995, Riggs has had difficulty getting back on his feet. He moved from Atlanta to Minnesota after accepting a job offer at AT&T Corp. The job was temporary, but Riggs knew the economy was good and believed he would find work easily.

A college graduate with a degree in health education, Riggs said he also has more than seven years experience as a computer technician and knowledge of different cultures, gained by traveling the world with the military.

“I was a Patriot missile crew member. Computer networking and technical support and a little programming. But I still have problems getting a job,” Riggs said. “Because of the nature of the work in the military, a lot of the programs I used in the military are generic. Nobody uses them but the military.”

More career counseling after the transition out of the military would make a difference, Riggs said.

But traffic violations, not career counseling, brought Riggs to Operation StandDown on Friday.

He came to speak with one of the 25 or so attorneys who volunteered at the event and said he hoped to clear his record of $1,600 in fines he owed but could not afford to pay.

The attorneys and judges are granted temporary jurisdiction to handle cases from across the state.

“The basic idea behind this is to try to consolidate cases that veterans have. It gives them a fresh start,” said attorney Joe Boche.

Veterans are still sentenced to jail time and receive fines if the cases call for it. But most veterans need simple legal advice.

“A lot of people walk in with family law problems, housing problems. Most of them are traffic matters, ordinance violations like drinking in public, or loitering,” Boche said.

“Chemical dependency issues are very big. I think it’s a lot of post-traumatic stress,” said attorney Mark Giancola. “These guys dealt with some pretty horrible things.”

“Everything is done toward helping, not punishing,” said attorney Mike Holland.

Riggs agreed.

His fines will be repaid through community service – a relief to a man without a home.


Latasha Webb welcomes comments at [email protected]