Veterans services assemble in Freeland for one-stop visit

It’s a first for South Whidbey.

It’s a first for Whidbey Island, too.

The Veterans Resource Center in Freeland will host a Veterans Stand Down, an assortment of services for veterans of all eras, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today.

“This is an opportunity for people who live here to get together and get some services here, instead of having to travel to some remote area to do that,” said Perry McClellan, president of the center’s board.

Stand Down events were first held in 1988 for homeless veterans in San Diego, Calif. Since then, the gatherings continue to focus on homeless veterans but have also expanded to assist all veterans who need guidance through the maze of Veterans Administration services and benefits. McClellan and VRC director Judith Gorman hope to provide a map to the maze at the Stand Down in Freeland.

“It’s useful to have the service providers together on any event that you can, because usually these organizations are all working independently,” McClellan said.

All services are donated. The VRC invited government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide information and referrals.

“There’s no money changing hands for any of that,” McClellan said.

Veterans need to bring a DD-214, discharge papers, a VA card or retired military ID to receive services and referrals.

Volunteers are excited about the chance to help veterans with a wide range of services all at once, rather than the traditional piecemeal approach of providing assistance.

“It’s all well and good to get the members of the choir together, but this is what they’re really singing for,” McClellan said. “So we’ll be anxious to see how this is attended and what comes out of it.”

Organizers aren’t sure how many veterans will show up, because it’s a drop-by event without registration and the first one on Whidbey Island. That said, the VRC averages five visits a day from veterans and the number is increasing, according to the center.

There may be many more that need help.

The U.S. Census Bureau counted 12,000 veterans (not including active military) living in Island County in 2009. That’s the most veterans per capita in any county in Washington.

And with Washington’s unemployment rate at 9.2 percent, an uptick from May’s 9.1 percent, VRC officials said times are tough on veterans and their families.

“We have an awful lot of people who are just not making ends meet,” McClellan said. “They are not getting by. We have homeless veterans on Whidbey Island that we see, and this is much the case in other areas as well.

It’s just that people here seem to forget that this exists, or don’t know that it exists.”

Sometimes, trying to find assistance can be overwhelming, Gorman said.

Another obstacle for Island County veterans is the distance they have to travel for other Stand Downs or to get military service-related assistance. The previous Stand Down in Washington was in Bellevue on June 22. The next events are Aug. 20 in Wenatchee, and Sept. 17-18 in Colville.

A new challenge is connecting recent veterans with the resources that are available to them. New veterans haven’t fully plugged in to the help that’s available, which encouraged the VRC to put greater emphasis on veterans recently returned from conflict.

“Across the nation, it has become evident that recently returned young veterans — which I have to say includes people even in their 40s and 50s since so many of our active duty troops are reservists — do not participate in programs designed to assist them,” McClellan said. “This is partly an attempt to see to what extent those folks are here in Island County and identify them.”

There’s still a significant population of older veterans, too, who need help.

“There’s just an escalating level of need that we see in our contacts with people,” McClellan said. “We have an awful lot of older veterans on Whidbey Island, and they’re hard-pressed often to get their needs met.”

At the Stand Down, representatives from the Veterans Administration will offer information on enrollment, benefits employment and home loans. WorkSource will also help veterans with resumes and job searches. A slew of healthcare screenings, including hearing, vision, mental health, medical and dental, will also be available.

“These will be sort of triage-oriented things, and then we will be referring people on to other organizations and providers,” McClellan said.

“The VRC cannot obviously provide these things ourselves,” he added.

Also, veterans assemblies such as Island County Veterans Services, Veterans of Foreign Wars —

Oak Harbor and American Legion representatives will present their groups.

“That’s part of our role at the VRC, is to provide networking for people who have issues either themselves, personally, or with family members or neighbors often times,” McClellan said.

The event also includes haircuts and a pet wash, as part of the self-care portion of the event.

“There’s self-care kinds of things as well as information for how to discover what’s available for you, as a veteran, because these things are constantly changing,” Gorman said.

Aimed for veterans’ families, too, the event has a barbecue, live music, demonstrations and prize giveaways. McClellan said the information provided will pertain to families of veterans, too.

“Sometimes it’s family members who are the ones providing care for veterans who have problems of any kind,” he said. “And sometimes they’re isolated and they don’t know what to do. Part of what this is for is to give people a chance to ask questions and connect with other people in like situations.”

The Veterans Resource Center is at 1796 Main St.

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