By Amy Guckeen Tolson, Staff Writer Redstone RocketOctober 26, 2011
HUNTSVILLE, Ala.--They came for a hot meal, a warm bed and a chance to get off the streets, but more importantly, they came for a new lease on life.
"These men and women have served our country loyally for so many years," Dan Hamrick, spokesman for Operation Stand Down Huntsville, said. "We've got people of all ages, from young people all the way up to senior citizens, and they honestly feel that their country has forgotten them. They were willing to give all for their country, and now they feel their country has left them behind. It's just not right. It's just not right. The reason we are able to enjoy the freedoms we have here is because these men and women were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. We could at least help them get a home."
Homeless veterans came out for the fifth annual Operation Stand Down Huntsville at Joe Davis Stadium this past weekend. For three days the men and women that had so bravely fought for their country, but have fallen on hard times, were shown the support of the community, and given the opportunity to connect with resources to help them get back on their feet. Medical and dental care offered by the VA, free legal advice, job assistance through Still Serving Veterans, counseling, information about HUD-VASH, and free haircuts from Virginia College were just part of a wide array of agencies and vendors that were there to help, in addition to hot meals, entertainment and a place to sleep.
Artrice Chaptman, 57, proudly served his country as a member of the Marine Corps. But decades after taking off the uniform, he has fallen on hard times with the loss of his truck driving job years ago that he has not been able to recover from, and the death of his father this year that has left him with a stack of bills and legal matters to sort through. More than anything, he wants to get into his own home and back to work. But the opportunities simply are not available to many veterans in his situation, Chaptman said. The resources available at the Stand Down, including free legal aid and job assistance, were there to help veterans see the light at the end of what can be a very frustrating tunnel.
"There's a lot of people out there that know how to do a lot of stuff," Chaptman said. "I know people that are mechanical geniuses, these guys can do things. They could work if they could get the opportunity to work. I'm ready to go back to work. I'm ready."
Approximately 186 veterans in the area have fallen on hard times and are homeless, according Hamrick; 107 came for the Stand Down. And while they may not know where they will lay their head to sleep on any given night, this weekend was a reminder to the homeless veteran community that as long as they're in the Tennessee Valley, they are not alone.
"Our goal this weekend is to make these men and women feel like they should be feeling, respected members of the community and members of society," Hamrick said.
During the three-day weekend, some 400 volunteers showed their support by serving meals, handing out toiletries, pillows and clothes, and just listening to the veterans' stories. The American Legion Post 237, commanded by Billy Heatherly, dropped off several hundred pounds of toiletries, kerosene stoves, coats, shirts, gloves and other essentials for the veterans Saturday morning.
"To see us give a leg up to veterans, it is important, to say that they are still important in our lives," said Norma Ziegler, a volunteer with the American Red Cross, who helped hand out bags of towels, soap, toothbrushes and other toiletries. "You can't just walk away."
That is exactly why Operation Stand Down Huntsville, part of a nationwide movement, has become a year-round outreach in Huntsville. Veterans are able to stop by the organization's office off University Drive from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday for clothing and food, and can also call 1-866-242-1790, to reach someone from the organization 24/7, as other needs arise.
"This is a military community, so they definitely care about their veterans," Chaptman said. "In another community where there's no bases, you might get a different response."
Operation Stand Down would like to extend a special thank you to Domino's, Hardee's, Kroger, Lawlers Barbecue, Sierra Toyota, Woody Anderson Ford, Carrabba's and Madison RV for their donations throughout the weekend. For more information about Operation Stand Down Huntsville, visit www.operationstanddownhuntsville.org.