Valuing our veterans


Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 12:32 a.m.
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Gainesville resident Richard Whiting, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1969 to 1971 as a sergeant, receives a flu shot from Lavern Pettaway of the 345th Combat Support Hospital in Jacksonville at the Stand Down for Homeless Veterans at the U.S. Army Reserve Center on Friday.

(TRISTAN MAHER/Special to The Sun)
Nearly 30 years have passed since Carl Clemons left the Navy, but he's still constantly traveling from port to port.
For the past three weeks, Clemons has been dragging everything he owns around the streets of Gainesville in a two-wheeled luggage caddy.
Before that, he says, he was in and out of veterans' hospitals and homeless shelters around the country.
"The last time I was in the hospital was in October," Clemons said. "They put me in for malnutrition. Now I'm at St. Francis, when they can take me. When they can't, I live on the street."
Clemons was one of about 75 local homeless veterans who showed up at the Army Reserve Center at 1125 NE 8th Ave. Friday for the Homeless Veterans' Stand Down, a one-day event that allows homeless veterans to grab a free meal, get a fresh change of military surplus clothes and get in touch with veterans' agencies that can provide them with free medical or mental health care.
The homeless population is difficult to count, but local veterans' agencies estimate that about 200 veterans live on the streets in Gainesville at any given time. The Department of Veterans affairs estimates that almost one-fourth of homeless people - and as many as one-third of homeless men - have been in the military at some point in their lives.
"Stand down" is a military term, referring to the wartime practice of sending exhausted combat units away from the front, where they can recuperate. Since the late 1980s, the term has also referred to events like this one, which allow homeless veterans to get relief from street conditions - without having to wade through red tape.
"A lot of these guys, particularly from the Vietnam era, don't really trust government institutions," said Bob Weil, veterans' employment representative at the Alachua/Bradford One Stop Center. "But if you get them in an environment like this, where pretty much everyone is a veteran, they feel a lot more comfortable."
Vietnam veteran William Dixon, 53, said he came to the event "just to hang around with people who understand."
Dixon, a Detroit native, joined the Army at 18 and spent 22 months in Vietnam, where he manned an 81-millimeter mortar. The experience left him with a constant ringing in his ears, and worse, a nagging sense of anxiety that left him unable to settle down.
"In Vietnam, anytime things started going good, that was when something horrible would always happen," he said. "When I got back, I couldn't stay anywhere for long. If things were going good, I'd get worried and leave."
Dixon came to Gainesville four years ago, and lived on the streets before being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and becoming a client of VETSPACE, a local nonprofit organization that provides homeless veterans with temporary shelter.
Officials at local veterans' agencies say a growing number of Vietnam-era veterans are seeking assistance.
"We're talking about guys who are in their mid-50s now," said Bob Murphy, president of VETSPACE. "It's a lot easier to live on the streets at 25 than it is at 55. It's not as easy to defend yourself, and it's not as easy to find work. Suddenly they realize they need help."
Organizers are planning another Stand Down for this fall - which will allow them to give veterans flu shots before the winter flu season - and they plan to make the event an annual one.
"It kind of chokes me up to see these guys," said Maj. Deborah Scott, executive officer for the 257th Transportation Battalion, headquartered at the Reserve Center. "No one who served their country should be without a home."
Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@ gvillesun.com.

VETERANS:

Growing number seeking help Gainesville resident Richard Whiting, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1969 to 1971 as a sergeant, receives a flu shot from Lavern Pettaway of the 345th Combat Support Hospital in Jacksonville at the Stand Down for Homeless Veterans at the U.S. Army Reserve Center on Friday.

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