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Santa Rosa man works to ease others' access to programs, benefits

Coffee, doughnuts and help with problems such as homelessness and health care are available to military veterans every Tuesday morning in Santa Rosa.

And it's all provided by volunteers such as Andy Pyburn, a Vietnam-era veteran who was once homeless and approached the Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy on his own.

"I made a lot of useless trips," said Pyburn, 55, a Santa Rosa resident who served seven years in the Army, mostly stationed in Europe, before leaving as a staff sergeant in 1981.

Like many of his peers, Pyburn got along fine without VA benefits for years, attending Santa Rosa Junior College on the GI Bill and working at various jobs that provided health insurance.

But circumstances caught up with him, including complications from a service injury -- his jaw was broken by a tank hatch -- and his own "lack of focus on my other responsibilities," Pyburn said.

While setting his own life in order, Pyburn helped start Sonoma County Vet Connect, a nonprofit and emphatically nonpolitical organization, in 2008.

Its motto is "veterans helping veterans," and its goal is to form a bridge between local veterans and their families and the government and private agencies available to help them with medical care, housing, employment and other services.

Pyburn, who lives on a VA pension, is one of about 15 regular volunteers, most of them Vietnam-era vets, who set out the coffee and doughnuts from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial building, with similar sessions once a month at the Guerneville, Sonoma and Petaluma vets buildings.

"I don't like seeing any of my fellow veterans miss an opportunity to move forward," Pyburn said. He knows firsthand how a veteran can slip into the "cycle of homelessness," sleeping under bridges and in shelters.

"Our goal is to set them up for success," said Pyburn, who spends up to 18 hours a week on Vet Connect business.


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