ROCKY HILL — For two decades, hundreds of Connecticut veterans have attended an annual event designed to help them address health problems and legal issues as well as access free services. This year, many also got a picture with Gov. Dannel Malloy.
Malloy shook hands and snapped pictures with countless veterans Friday at the Veterans Health Center as he made his way around Stand Down, a yearly event that, among other things, strives to be a one-stop shopping spot for state services.
“Listen they have the same problems that everyone else has,” Malloy said. “Whether it’s a job that they don’t have or a benefit problem that they’re having difficulty getting processed. That’s why we do this event and that’s why we’re developing programs to make sure veterans get a better and higher level of service.”
Veterans’ Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz said this year’s event was expected to attract at least 1,000 needy vets, who can receive health screenings, tooth cleanings, or just get help clearing up parking tickets.
That was the case with Willie Clark, an Army vet who served in the Panama Conflict. Clark had received a parking ticket, which he thought he had addressed but soon received notification he needed to pay another ticket from a different vehicle. Because of an administrative error, one ticket had become two.
Clark, who lives in New Haven, came to Friday’s Stand Down where he got legal assistance from someone at tent run by the state’s Public Defender’s Office.
“She got right on the phone and hopefully she’s cleared everything up,” he said, after stopping by the dining hall for a free meal.
Susan Storey, the state’s chief public defender, said that things as minor as a parking ticket can often mean big trouble for returning veterans looking for work. An outstanding infraction can prevent a vet from getting a driver’s license, which is a real impediment to getting a job.
Storey said her staff also was helping veterans clear up minor legal problems in other states, like in the case of one man who had outstanding infractions in Wyoming.
“They forgave stuff over the phone so this gentleman could get his driver’s license here,” Storey said.
The man was able to walk across the field to a Department of Motor Vehicles tent to renew his license. Storey said it was important to help ease the transition of veterans back into civilian society.
“People come home from serving our country and they sometimes have difficulty with re-entry,” she said. “We’re really committed to helping our vets.”
Comptroller Kevin Lembo said housing often is a problem for veterans, particularly those who return with some form of mental illness. He said the state has taken steps to address the issue but it’s a tremendous problem that can’t be solved overnight.
“We need to see what we can do to make sure these people don’t serve our country then come home and have to sleep on the streets,” Lembo said.
Malloy said it’s also often tough for veterans to find work, but he urged vets to tell prospective employers about a state program subsidizing companies who hire veterans.
“If you go on an interview and the person doesn’t know it, you point out to them that they can get $900 a month for the initial period of your employment if they give you a job,” Malloy said.
The Stand Down is staffed by a group of volunteers, many of whom are veterans themselves. Bob Petrucci, a Navy vet, was among the volunteers. He was helping people find their way around.
“It’s a feel-good event for me,” Petrucci said. “Just being around fellow veterans, you feel a bond with them. It’s nice.”
Though Schwartz is the VA commissioner now, she told the crowd that when she attended her first Stand Down 20 years ago, she came as a volunteer.
“I was a disabled veteran. I had no job when I came to my first Stand Down, but I came because I wanted to help,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz asked the veterans to look around them at fellow vets and the people who volunteered their time to help. She said they should think of those people if they ever felt alone.
“You’re never alone and we thank you very much for your service,” she said.