Vietnam veterans probably remember "stand downs" - those safe retreats for units returning from combat duty.
Ben Wight, American Red Cross Armed Forces Coordinator in Great Falls, says stand downs, "represented a time in which you brought the troops back to get them showered up, resupplied and gave them a couple of days off to regroup until they put them back in the field.”
Wight is helping organize The 10th annual Vets for Vets Stand Down this week in Great Falls. It will bring together people and groups who want to give aid and comfort to Montana veterans who’ve fallen on tough times.
“Social Security representatives are going to be there," Wight says. "Job Service reps will be there too, as will psychological, addiction and physical therapy counselors. You can get haircuts and some food. You can also get some blankets and basic supplies for our homeless veterans.”
According to Deb Kottel there are roughly 60 to 70 homeless veterans in the Great Falls area at any given time.
Kottel is director of the Great Falls-area Saint Vincent de Paul Society, which has just opened a new transitional housing program called “Grace Home”. It will house up to 10 vets at its renovated 5th Avenue facility.
She says there’s no way to neatly categorize Montana’s homeless vets.
For instance, she mentions one local Vietnam combat vet named Nick:
“And he’s the typical person who had some brain trauma while serving in the military and some really significant PTSD." Kottel says he is, "still living under a bridge.”
But in the same breath she also talks about, "younger men whose marriages have fallen apart and who are homeless because of finances. (They’re) just unable to take two steps forward in their lives without feeling overwhelmed by everything else that’s happening to them.”
The President and CEO of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce, Brad Livingston, sees the same thing. He doesn’t think any one military generation is more vulnerable to falling through the cracks than any other.
“Life is tough, no doubt about that," says Livingston. "Some are conditioned to adjust to that and others – you know, it takes them a little bit longer."
Livingston spent 41 years with the Montana Air National Guard before retiring as a brigadier general.
“I do think that the military structure is a little bit different in that it is – I wouldn’t say ‘rigid’ – but there are expectations," he says. "When you move back into the non-military world, structure is not always in place. For some people that is difficult initially to adjust to.”
Livingston thinks a military town like Great Falls is acutely aware of veterans who, for whatever reason, can’t adjust to civilian life. He points to the new Grace Home transitional housing program as proof that the community cares and is willing to do something about it.
Mayor Bob Kelly sees it that way.
Last spring, Kelly announced Great Falls would join a national campaign called the “Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.” Participating communities work to combine local, federal and non-profit resources to address the problem.
"We’ve got some former homeless vets who we’re funding to go out in a vehicle and develop trust relationships where the homeless veterans are.," Kelly says. "They know them. They’ve been there. (They hope to) bring them in from the cold – literally – and help them navigate the bureaucratic nightmare that these guys can go through as they try to enjoy some of the benefits that are readily available to them but may be difficult to grab for the very first time."
Kelly acknowledges there’s no quick fix; he says coordinating local, state and federal agencies is sometimes akin to “herding cats."
What’s more, Saint Vincent de Paul’s Deb Kottel says housing is only one part of a very big problem. There’s also mental health and substance abuse treatment, skills training, employment and transportation issues to consider.
That’s a lot.
But for now at least, the American Red Cross' Ben Wight, who is also a member of the 120th Air Wing, just wants to offer local vets who are down on their luck a little break from their problems – another stand down.
“They deserve that," Wight says. "This two-day event is like, ‘Thank you. Thank you for your service. Let’s get you back going again.'”
The 10th annual Great Falls Vets for Vets Stand Down runs from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. this Thursday and Friday at the Montana ExpoPark’s Mercantile Building.
Similar Stand Down events will also be held in Libby on October 1 and October 6 in Havre.