People peruse the offerings at last Saturday’s “Stand Down for Veterans” at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, which drew about 60 veterans. Local veteran Micheal Smith, a volunteer for the event, kicked things off with an a cappella version of “America the Beautiful.”/Photo by Tracy Chamberlin

Standing together

‘Stand Down’ reaches out to local veterans in need
by Tracy Chamberlin

Using his cousin’s ID, he enlisted in the Army when he was just 15. Eventually he got caught. But not until he was 17 and could re-enlist in the Marine Corps as himself. Back then, he said, it was the patriotic thing to do. Now, he’s studying culinary arts at Southwest Community College in the hopes of becoming a pastry chef.

Out of the service since 1982, the chef said things have changed for the better. “You would have never found something like this in the ’70s,” he explained.

The chef said he’s never been one to ask for help, but the years are catching up with him. At his age he could use a little help. He called the volunteers beautiful people, adding he was grateful for everything, including the winter jacket he got from the American Red Cross. “I even got a haircut,” he added.

By noon, he was one of about 60 veterans who had stopped by the first ever Stand Down event hosted in La Plata County. Some were looking to connect with support services, others just looking for a winter jacket and a warm meal.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers in that country would find a secure camp where they could get clean uniforms, showers, hot meals and anything else that needed to rejuvenate their health and their spirit before heading back to the battlefield. That Stand Down concept was reborn in 1976 as a way to reach out to homeless and at-risk veterans here in the states.

Organizers gathered all the things needed into one place, where vets could, again, regroup. And, if they wanted, reconnect.

Hearts of gold

Some spoke of their experiences. Some didn’t. Others could only smile graciously and step away, eyes welling up with memory.

“I know what the military people go through,” said Janna Schaefer, volunteer coordinator for the first ever Stand Down event hosted in La Plata County.
Schaefer is also one of the soft-spoken voices behind Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star Families.

Blue Star puts together care packages for deployed military, and Gold Star organizes an annual getaway for families who’ve lost loved ones in service. It’s a chance for them to connect with others who understand the challenges of those losses.

“Unfortunately, it gets larger every year,” explained Mike Amato, who volunteered at the Stand Down event on Saturday.

He said the Gold Star Families cry a lot, laugh a lot, but come out of the weeklong escape uplifted. “It’s a chance to decompress and heal.”
For more information:
- Blue Star Mothers of Durango, 259-1813 or email:
- Gold Star Families of Durango, 749-1673 or

Tracy Chamberlin

Hosted by the Veterans Affairs Office, American Legion, American Red Cross, Veterans for Veterans and Volunteers of America, the Stand Down is about letting vets know the community cares, explained Janna Schaefer, volunteer coordinator for the event. “(The community) is aware of what’s going on, and they want to help.”

The event focused on homeless or at-risk vets, those who are low income or struggling on fixed incomes. Of the 4,600 veterans in La Plata County, 50 are homeless or at-risk of being homeless, Schaefer said.

The turnout was both positive and negative for Richard Schleeter, Veterans Service Officer for La Plata County. It was good to help those who need it, but concerning that so many needed help. He said he knows most of the veterans living on the streets of Durango. At Saturday’s event, however, there were several individuals he didn’t know.

On any given night across the country, almost 50,000 veterans are homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

About 12,700 of those served in recent conflicts, including Operation Enduring Freedom, which refers to efforts in Afghanistan; and Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, both referring to operations in Iraq. And, the numbers for young, homeless veterans are on the rise.

The biggest challenge for veterans returning home, Schleeter explained, is dealing with mental health issues.

Schleeter, who served in the late 1980s, said everyone in the community needs to come together to try and resolve the issue. 

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, half of all homeless vets suffer from serious mental illnesses and more than half have disabilities. 4

Sometimes they don’t know where to start, Schaefer explained. That’s where Stand Down comes in.

Mike Amato, a veteran himself, walked around with other vets throughout the day, carrying items they collected, paperwork they needed, or simply showing them around the place. “You need a haircut?” he asked. “What do you need?”

Whether it was winter hats, housing, haircuts or a hot meal, anything they needed, he made sure they got.

“I don’t think any detail was left out,” said Pam Crowell, associate director for the New Mexico VA Health Care System.

Crowell was a member of the contingent from the VA hospital in Albuquerque, the closest veterans’ hospital to Durango, serving the entire Four Corners area.

That group in particular was able to connect several homeless vets with housing programs. Stephanie Saldivar, also with the New Mexico VA Health Care System, believes they’ll be able to stay in touch with almost half of them and get a majority of those off the streets.

“We have an obligation to reach them where they are,” Crowell said.

That’s exactly what Schleeter tried to do.

County officials went out to homeless camps in the area to hand out pamphlets and let the local homeless community know about the Stand Down event.

“I didn’t expect this many homeless vets to show up,” said Charlie Parnell, who, along with Schleeter and Schaefer, helped organize the Stand Down event.

For years, Parnell made the drive to and from the VA hospital in Albuquerque as a volunteer with the Disabled American Veterans. He said he joined the Air Force in 1962 to keep from getting drafted, and ended up staying for the next 26 years.

The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit “veterans-helping-veterans” groups, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

“Sometimes, there’s not much we’re able to do,” explained Charley Miller, owner of Charley’s Barber Shop in Cortez.

Miller did what she could, though, she cut hair. Along with Izzy Tucson, owner of Tucson’s on Main Avenue, and Rod Wenzel, who owned and operated several barber shops in Durango, she offered a clean cut to any veteran who wanted or needed one.

“I’ve been close myself,” Wenzel, an Army vet, said of the struggles that homeless and at-risk veterans face. “Once you get out there, it’s hard to get back in the system.”

Tucson, whose uncle, father and grandfather all served, is hoping the event continues to grow, suggesting more downtown businesses, first responders and community churches get involved for next year’s event. Tucson wouldn’t mind if both buildings at the fairgrounds filled up with so many support services and volunteers, even spilling over into the parking lot.

“I wouldn’t have the freedom I do if it weren’t for our veterans,” said Tucson. “We don’t give them enough.”


Veterans looking for help of any kind can contact Richard Schleeter, Veterans Service Officer with La Plata County, 1970 E. 3rd Ave., Suite 102. Email: or phone: 759-0117 or 382-6150.

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