Dozens of veterans were at the Proctor Hopson VFW Post in St. Albans on Thursday, combing through donated clothes, learning about health benefits and job opportunities and socializing with other service members at the facility’s annual stand down event.
The attendees were thankful to know that there is a place they can turn to for support and comfort, a place where other people understand their problems and hardships. Many of those who took advantage of the services were homeless or battling drug addiction.
The program was the brainchild of the VFW’s commander, Willie Burks, a disabled Army veteran of the Vietnam War. When he returned home from his time in the service, people were less than welcoming, and he wanted to make sure that other service members are aware of their rights and are not treated poorly.
“Since Queens has the largest number of veterans — more than any other borough — and one out of four homeless people are veterans, I don’t want them to go through what we went through when we came back from Vietnam,” Burks said. “We work very hard to let the veterans know that somebody out there cares about them.”
Anthony Simpson, an Army veteran and client of JCAP, a social services and drug treatment organization, attended the event to get some free clothes, network and chat with other vets about their experiences. He said he became addicted to crack-cocaine and alcohol partly because he had difficulty coping with problems and dealing with some of the experiences he had in the service.
“I lost everything, from my house to my wife — all the material possessions that I owned,” Simpson said. “It’s been a rough road in this process, but now I have 14 months of sobriety. The [JCAP] program helped me get my life together.”
Army vet Thomas McNeal has also battled alcohol and drug addiction, which ended up leaving him homeless and living at the St. Albans VA domiciliary. He too was taking advantage of the resources and free clothing at the stand down.
“When I got out [of the service], my drug use started to increase,” McNeal said. “There were a lot of other things going on in my life as well, that I wasn’t dealing with, and not dealing with it made it worse, and homelessness was a part of that.”
Brian Donovan, a Marine and Iraq War vet and a patient at the St. Albans VA, was filling up a bag with free clothes. He said he found it comforting to be around other service members.
“It’s really cool being here and meeting other vets from different wars, all ages from World War II down to Iraq guys like me,” Donovan said. “Everyone is just hanging out and talking.”