Local News

Thursday, Oct 11 2012 06:15 PM

Veterans seek help at annual event

  1. 1 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Veterans and workers enjoy breakfast at Stramler Park during the annual Kern County Veterans Stand Down.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Air Force veteran Jimmy Pesina, 75, says he likes to help homeless veterans in Kern County. He was reading the morning newspaper at the Veterans Stand Down, Thursday, at Stramler Park.

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  3. 3 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Air Force veteran Jimmy Pesina, 75, reads a morning newspaper at Stramler Park during the Kern County Veterans Stand Down. Pesina says he regularly helps the homeless veterans in Kern County.

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  4. 4 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Clinica Sierra Vista medical assistant Ramon Camacho, left, helps Army veteran Fred Johnson, of Bakersfield, Thursday, with medical issues at the Kern County Veterans Stand Down. Held at Stramler Park each year, this allows veterans to receive help in many areas of life including with medical needs.

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  5. 5 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Clinica Sierra Vista medical assistant Ramon Camacho, left, checks Army veteran Fred Johnson's vital signs Thursday morning in Stramler Park during the annual KC Veterans Stand Down.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Clinica Sierra Vista medical assistant Ramon Camacho, left, helps Army veteran Fred Johnson with medical issues Thursday in their mobile clinic at Stramler Park. This was part of the annual Kern County Veterans Stand Down to help veterans with their needs. Johnson has had problems with his teeth for several years and was going to receive some treatment soon, he hoped.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Fred Johnson, 55, of Bakersfield, a veteran who served as a Spec. 4 in the U.S. Army, waits for medical care in one of several lines Thursday at Stramler Park during the 2012 Kern County Veterans Stand Down.

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BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

After two years in the U.S. Marines, Barry Aiken made some bad choices.

He started hanging out with the wrong people. And he started drinking -- a lot.

"I was witnessing a lot of violence and putting myself through situations," he said. So he drank to "cover up and mask reality," he said.

He did a stint in prison for burglary. And when he got out, he was homeless. That's when he took to heart suggestions that he seek help. He found help and shelter at veterans' aid organization New Directions and eventually made his way to Live Again Christian Men's Recovery.

"I feel fortunate, very grateful," he said.

Now that he's recovered, he's giving back. On Thursday, he was with Live Again to promote its services to other veterans at Bakersfield's annual Veterans Stand Down in Stramler Park.

In military terms, to stand down is when exhausted troops are removed from battle to rest in safe and secure places like base camp. The Bakersfield event, one of many around the country, aims to bring that concept to civilian life by giving veterans a place to find services.

"It's a day of camaraderie," said Heather Kimmel, executive director of California Veterans Assistance Foundation, which organized the event.

Thursday marked the 14th annual Stand Down in Bakersfield. It attracted 345 veterans, slightly down from last year's 364. Forty service vendors provided everything from medical aid to housing to haircuts.

Stand Down strives to be more than just an information session, Kimmel said. Vendors are asked to come ready to actually do something for veterans on the spot.

For example, the foundation is helping a veteran move Friday using the U-Haul it rented for the event, Kimmel said.

"Someone came up to us and said, 'I've got this storage unit and I have to move my stuff out tomorrow, but I have no way to do it,'" Kimmel said. "So we said, 'Well, we have this U-Haul for another day.'"

Finding housing for homeless veterans is a big part of the event, too. Twenty-seven people filled out applications for Section 8 housing vouchers, said Martha Johnson of the Kern County Housing Authority. Section 8 is a government voucher program to help low-income families, the elderly and disabled afford housing. Another 10 to 15 took applications, eight of which Johnson expects to actually be mailed back.

Yet another 14 veterans signed up to be contacted in the future about Veterans Affairs Support Housing, which is similar to Section 8, but is for homeless veterans.

"People are coming because they're interested in housing," Johnson said. "A lot need assistance."

Another popular draw is Veterans Court, which allows those with a fine from a misdemeanor or traffic ticket to volunteer at the event in lieu of paying.

Veterans Court is why Jesus Raul Gonzalez went to Stand Down. He had a $600 fine for driving without a license. He had already paid off $300, but missed two payments and was told he was going to have to start from the beginning. So, instead, he was at Stramler picking up trash and moving around tables.

Gonzalez served in the Army during the Vietnam War era. He was stationed in West Germany, servicing tanks and protecting West Germany from East Germany and Russia.

He has diabetes and arthritis. They came with age, he said, but were also probably aggravated by his Army experiences. He broke his left foot during training and now has trouble walking. And he returned with post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he still sees a psychiatrist once a week.

He's come to Stand Down for the last 12 years, making sure he is aware of all the benefits to which he's entitled.

"You can't be just fighting and fighting because you'll lose it," Gonzalez said. "None of us are made for war."

Aiken, the Marines veteran, got a haircut and picked up a new backpack.

After a period where "life took its own toll," he said, he's thrilled to be both receiving help and giving back.

"It's great, it's awesome, it's wonderful," he said. "I feel fortunate to be a part of it."

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