A helping hand: Veterans get badly needed services

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 1, 2005

On Memorial Day, America gave thanks to the millions that have served in the Armed Forces, traveling all over the globe to fight for their country.

But after the wars ended and the veterans came back, life didn’t get much easier. Some had been permanently injured, both on the outside and inside. Some would carry their wounds forever, keeping them from making something of their lives.

Some ended up dead. Others are confined to mental hospitals. Others still live on the streets, passed by and looked down upon by those for whom they fought. Some 299,000 veterans nationwide are without shelter, according to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Over the next few days, Reginald Ruffin and the rest of the local Disabled American Veterans (DAV) chapters will be giving a little help to those who truly need and deserve it. Today and tomorrow, Stand Down 2005 will be held at the Suffolk Armory on Godwin Boulevard. The program started Tuesday.

It’s a chance for local vets to apply for benefits and employment, receive a quick medical checkup, learn about social security and other options. Three meals per day are provided, and clothing.

&uot;Suffolk doesn’t have a shelter for its vets like Norfolk and Virginia Beach do,&uot; said Ruffin, a security officer for Suffolk’s DAV and the state chairman of the organization’s homeless committee. &uot;We’re trying to get Suffolk to build a shelter, and we need to justify it. We’re hoping that this will do that.&uot;

A retired marine and Vietnam veteran, Ruffin has been forced to depend on disability payments. He suffers from heart disease, diabetes and other ailments.

&uot;Vets aren’t understood,&uot; said Ruffin, who feels many of his disorders are due to exposure to Agent Orange, a widely-used herbicide used to kill plants in Vietnam to make bombs more effective.

&uot;They’re just someone on the street to be passed by. War’s rough, and some people don’t come back mentally. They served their country, and that’s where they ended up.&uot;

Fellow security officer Henrico Brown of the Chesapeake DAV chapter knows what the vets are going through; he has been under the Virginia Healthcare program since 1974, the year after he came home from the Korean War.

&uot;It’s really unstable,&uot; said Brown of his post-traumatic stress disorder, which requires him to attend psychiatric groups and take medication. &uot;I have good days and bad days. It’s a delayed onset; you put it in the back of your mind, and certain incidents bring it back to the forefront, like family problems and job issues. Being homeless can tear you down both mentally and physically.

&uot;Our job is to provide service,&uot; he said of the program. &uot;Everyone needs a meal every day. Everyone deserves the opportunity to take a shower every day.

&uot;It’s these types of amenities that bring a soldier back into focus. A man out on the street thinks that no one cares about him. This lets people know that the DAV really cares.&uot;

That’s a message that Edward Smith and his son Edward Jr. haven’t heard much lately; after being laid off from the Newport News Shipyard, the two don’t have a place to live. Walking down the highway Monday afternoon, the pair were accosted by a few police officers.

&uot;We proved that we were walking, not hitchhiking,&uot; the senior Smith said. &uot;One of the police officers had a flyer about (Stand Down) and they drove us here. The DAV put us in a hotel last night and fed us this morning.&uot;

Smith, a Gulf War veteran, got his blood pressure checked and wrote out some benefit applications.

&uot;We’re about to walk to Texas,&uot; he said. &uot;We’ll probably stop in the major towns and try to work for a while. It should take about a month.&uot;

&uot;My dad wants to go back to Texas where he was born,&uot; said the younger Smith.

&uot;He left when he was three, three and a half, because his dad was in the military. He wants to go back and see his home, and maybe get some money and a new place.&uot;