ROCKY HILL — Gary Griffith was one of more than a 1,000 needy veterans expected to access free services from private companies and public agencies at the 16th annual Stand Down on Friday.
Griffith, a Navy vet, said he was looking to talk to someone from the Department of Social Services about a housing issue. His landlord in Newbury is planning on renovating the basement he is currently living in, turning it into an apartment. He said once that’s done he won’t be able to afford living there anymore.
Like many vets in Connecticut, Griffith has fallen on hard times. He lost his job as a welding foreman in a factory after he was afflicted with degenerative spinal arthritis. He said he’s been living on disability ever since.
“They wouldn’t let me keep my job anymore. I have terrible resentments about that,” he said.
Griffith’s back pain acted up as he waited in a long line for free clothing. He borrowed a chair from a helpful volunteer at an information booth. The new clothes will help him get by on his tight budget, he said.
“When you’re on disability your money doesn’t go very far,” he said.
His story was typical of many of the folks who showed up for the Stand Down, which the Departments of Veterans Affairs hosts every year to aid needy and homeless veterans.
Commissioner Linda Schwartz said that given the economic downturn, the need for the event keeps rising. Last year’s Stand Down saw a record turnout of almost 1,400 veterans, she said.
“Connecticut had more people attend the Stand Down than any other state in America last year,” she said.
This year the turnout will likely be higher. The event began at 7 a.m. and by 8:15 long lines had already formed outside service buildings and tents scattered about the Veteran Home’s campus.
The event offers an impressive array of services including free medical care, clothes, and food. It also serves as a venue for vets to work government related issues.
Staff from state Departments of Banking, Labor, Higher Education, Mental Health and Addiction Services, Motor Vehicles, Public Health, Social Services and Transportation; the Office of the Chief Public Defender; and the Judicial Branch were on cite to help. Federal Departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor were also present as well as the Social Security Administration.
With so much available, most vets were multitasking. Air Force veteran Ulysses Byrd said he came to the Stand Down from Waterbury hoping to have health and legal issues addressed. He said he needed to have a couple teeth pulled and was also looking for guidance about refinancing his home.
He said having access to so much information in one place helps.
“There’s government programs out there but if you don’t know about them, you need assistance,” he said sitting in the dental clinic.
Byrd said he’s worried that funds directed at helping veterans will be cut at a time when so many of them need the aid.
“Look at this. You talk about cutting back? This is terrible,” he said as he looked around at the crowds of veterans.
Army veteran Gary Tallerdy said the Veterans Affairs Department has been a great help to him as he’s struggled to quit drinking. The West Hartford truck driver said he checked into an intense VA rehab program when things got serious and has been living at the Veterans Home.
“I was a heavy drinker,” he said. “I have 10 months sober now, haven’t had a drink. They’ve been good to me.”
Tallerdy said the department asked that the vets living at the home allow the people from outside to access the services first. But after he was hoping to get a parking ticket he received in Hartford cleared up with the Judicial Branch. The branch set up a makeshift court in one of the buildings.
In addition to the state employees helping with services, the event was staffed by a host of volunteers. Many of them described it as a rewarding experience.
Bob Petrucci was working an information booth, answering questions and handing out maps of the Stand Down. He let Griffith borrow his chair while he waited. Petrucci, a veteran himself, said it felt good to help out. His wife recommended the event to him.
“She said it was a pretty special thing to volunteer for,” he said.
Lisa Rozo, an Americorps volunteer, was helping out in the dental clinic, taking down veterans’ names as the filed in. She said she was enjoying herself.
“It’s great to see people and how happy they are to see us here,” she said.
In the morning Secretary of the State Denise Merrill was touring the Stand Down with Schwartz. She called it a phenomenal event. She said she was blown away by the number of people who showed up and the extent of their need. She was especially impressed with the volunteer effort.
“This is Connecticut at its best really,” she said.
Schwartz agreed. She pointed to the line of veterans waiting for free clothing.
“If you look at these folks, you know that when they leave here today they will have something that helps,” she said.