October 17, 2009, 2:34PM
NEWARK -- The line of veterans outside the John F. Kennedy Pool and Recreation Center in Newark began to form early yesterday morning, after nearby shelters closed their doors for the day.
Temperatures were in the 40s, and the leaden sky threatened rain. But for these people, it was well worth the wait.
Mostly veterans of the Vietnam War, some of them toughened by combat and an unreceptive public upon their return from war, it was an opportunity to receive government services in preparation for the long, cold winter ahead. But it was also a chance to see friends, receive help to get a job, undergo medical tests and replace a lost identification card.
Inside, U.S. Army and Air Force medics checked their blood pressure. Workers with the Department of Veterans Affairs helped them sign up for benefits. As they left, the veterans were handed military surplus; green camouflage rain gear, tan and black combat boots, and sleeping bags.
"This is a respite from their lives on the street," said David Cathcart, president of the Northern New Jersey Stand Down Committee, which represents non-profit organizations, the City of Newark and state and federal departments of veterans affairs.
The annual Stand Down, one of two in New Jersey and 157 in the country, was started by Vietnam veterans in 1988 in San Diego to provide vital services to veterans. The name of the effort refers to an order soldiers receive to temporarily cease combat operations or observe a period of rest and recovery.
According to a March 2009 Department of Veterans Affairs report, on any given night there are approximately 131,000 veterans who are homeless across the country.
In New Jersey, the estimates of veteran homelessness range from 6,000 to 7,000, according to Gary Englert, the director of veterans services for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
This includes veterans living on the streets or shelters, but also those who lack a permanent residence and find themselves bouncing from the home of one family member or friend to another, he said.
Officials said 334 veterans were served yesterday, some of whom were bused in from Morristown, Paterson and Jersey City.
National Guard troops from the 50th Brigade, including many recently returned from service in Iraq, volunteered their services, ushering the men and some women through a series of stations in the large gymnasium.
"You want a haircut today?" said Pvt. Michael Pereira, 19, of West New York, to a middle-aged man named Shelby. A cloud of talcum powder surrounded the groomed head of an older man in one of the two barber chairs.
Dangerously high blood pressure, discovered by Air National Guard medics, sent Dennis Settle, 60, of Jersey City into an ambulance. Settle was one of five veterans who were sent to hospitals with symptoms ranging from high blood pressure to adverse reactions to medication.
Settle, a Marine Corps veteran, saw heavy combat in the jungles of Vietnam.
"Sometimes I see old faces," Settle said of his visits to the Stand Down. "It's not just because I'm homeless, but because I associate with these guys," said Settle.
Settle is scheduled to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in East Orange.
Officials from the VA are now trying their best to ensure that soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan avoid homelessness.
"If we can be effective with our preventative services and begin to identify veterans who might be at risk, we might have a profound impact on preventing those disastrous outcomes," said John Kuhn, the national coordinator of the CHALENG program of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which coordinates VA programs with community and state homeless programs.
While the rates of homelessness among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are not yet significant, Kuhn said it takes between five and 10 years before the mix of mental, family and economic conditions turn a veteran to the streets.
"The Vietnam veteran generation taught us to be prepared," he said. "Time will tell."