The one thing I can give away is my time,” said Marcella Jean-Aiello, as she turned her attention from the unkempt hair of the homeless veteran in her barber’s chair. “My dad is a veteran and I volunteered on base my whole life.”
Fresh off a sleepless 16-hour shift as a paramedic, Jean-Aiello, a former beautician, joined hundreds of other volunteers for the East Bay Stand Down in Pleasanton, California, from Sept. 15-18. The Stand Down serves as the primary annual outreach to the San Francisco and Bay Area homeless veteran community, which numbers as many as 7,000 veterans. According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, there are an estimated 250,000 veterans across the nation who live on the streets.
“The saddest part of my day was listening to the stories of so many of these beautiful men and women who gave up a portion of their lives to serve their country [and] tell me how they came to be homeless,” said Jean-Aiello. “One man enlisted and served in Vietnam and Korea. I’m sorry, but no one who serves their country twice [in combat] should ever have to be homeless.”
Joining Jean-Aiello and the other civilian volunteers were more than 100 National Guardsmen from California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan, who alongside Navy Reserve and Coast Guard service members provided a significant portion of the equipment and skill sets necessary for the event’s success.
“I wanted to give back to those who needed the help more than most,” said Spc. Courtney Reilley, a civilian registered nurse and Army medic with the Wisconsin National Guard’s 135th Medical Company in Milwaukee.
The California Guard’s contributions proved foundational to the Stand Down effort. The California Military Department recently acquired a General Use Shelter (GUS) system, a climate-controlled shelter network capable of housing up to 500 personnel. Erected on the Alameda County Fairgrounds, the GUS system served as a “tent city” from which Stand Down volunteers provided services to homeless veterans.
In addition, the Cal Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing delivered a Mobile Emergency Operations Center, a technology-laden vehicle that served as the Stand Down’s primary communications and operations center.
The 163d also sent medical personnel and Chaplains to help.
Staff Sgt. Isabel Aceves of the 163d Medical Group worked with a U.S. Navy podiatry team linking veterans to doctors.
“I kept thinking those are the feet of veterans who wore combat boots and walked in Vietnam,” Aceves said while tearing up. “I got to be part of that.”
According to the East Bay Stand Down’s organizers, more than 200 cities have held stand downs since the first occurred in 1988 in San Diego. Stand downs have served more than 100,000 homeless veterans to date. The services provided include medical and dental care, clothing, hot meals, hygiene supplies, behavioral health counseling, and, perhaps most importantly, exposure to professional resources that encourage life improvements that might last long after the Stand Down.
“The food and other services are really to entice them to come in,” said Col. Jim Duong, a civilian anesthesiologist who serves as a medical provider with the 115th Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. “The majority of veterans who commit suicide are not associated with medical care. … If we can hook them up with somebody who can help reduce their risk, if I can help accomplish that, to me, personally, that would be a big deal.”
But the greatest fulfillment from the Stand Down undoubtedly comes from those receiving the services. As much as the concrete care they receive the validation of their humanity and military service is a life-affirming benefit.
“I’m trying to say thank you for your patience,” said Garry Newkirk, a former Navy corpsman and Vietnam Veteran, to the volunteer fitting him with new boots. “It almost makes up for all those times I was spit on.”