Sonoma County Vet Connect offers lifeline for former service members

The organization has made emergency housing its primary focus during the pandemic, as concern for the welfare of at-risk veterans continues to grow at steady pace.|

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Dana Henry was a 17-year-old high school senior in 1965 when he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve with his parents’ consent. He was in active service within a year, deployed to Vietnam on an LST, an amphibious ship designed to land troops and materiel directly on shore.

He later was assigned to a Mekong River patrol boat and helped shuttle SEAL teams to combat zones in Cambodia. It was the kind of duty portrayed in the Francis Ford Coppola film “Apocalypse Now” — cruising up a murky jungle river while never knowing when vegetation on the banks would explode with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Henry sustained shrapnel wounds during one of his missions. Nor was his homecoming an unalloyed joy.

“We had some ill treatment,” he said. “Coming through the airports in those days, you’d see a lot of protesters. Vietnam wasn't World War II. It wasn’t a popular war.”

Still, Henry readjusted to the civilian world. For decades, life was good. Then things fell apart.

“My wife died about three years ago, and it hit me very hard,” Henry said. “I had to sell my house. I developed an alcohol problem, and that got me into trouble.”

Near the nadir of this period, Henry found himself in court on a legal issue. He was approached by a social worker from the Santa Rosa Veterans Administration clinic who told him about valor court — a specialized docket that helps veterans resolve their legal difficulties and connects them with the services they need. Henry was able to settle his court case and gain admittance to Hearn House, a Santa Rosa group residence administered by the Veterans Housing Development Corp. for vets with substance abuse or mental health problems.

Thanks in part to the therapy he received at Hearn House, Henry was able to quit drinking; he has been sober for a year. Today, he’s the manager for Robinson House, a small veterans’ home outside Sebastopol owned by Nation’s Finest, a veterans’ aid group headquartered in Santa Rosa that operates in California, Arizona and Nevada. In a few months, he’ll receive a rental voucher for his own residence.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Henry said. “I’ll like having my own place again. But I’m also really enjoying my time at Robinson. I love the west county, and we have a real community here. There are only six of us in a large house, the staff is wonderful, the food is great, and we have ample time to focus on our therapy and mindfulness. Sonoma County really cares about its veterans. The help I’ve received has made a tremendous difference in my life.”

Need for housing and therapy

Concern for the welfare of veterans has been growing steadily since the end of the Vietnam War, with concomitant boosts following the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a consequence, a lot of vets, including many in Sonoma County, have received help from the Veteran’s Administration and allied private groups.

Still, public esteem doesn’t necessarily translate into the things veterans actually need. As Nation’s Finest Communications Director Joe Millsap observed in a USA Today editorial he wrote a few years ago, “Thank you for your service” isn’t an adequate response to a veteran for his years in uniform, or for any subsequent crises arising from those years.

“It’s not that the sentiment isn’t appreciated, but it can sometimes ring a little hollow, now that we’re almost 20 years beyond 9/11,” said Millsap, a former U.S. Marine captain who served in Iraq and was a member of a relief force dispatched to Indonesia following the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.

“The fact remains that action speaks louder than words,” Millsap said. “It’s not really a matter of vets needing money so much as they need the services that money supports. Housing, medical care and therapy are foundational. If a vet is on the street, everything else is secondary. Later, once their situation is secure, we can look into job training and rent vouchers.”

Further, such aid needs to be sustainable, he said.

“There has to be long-term planning and coordination with all the services the community offers to ensure their housing and other basic needs are met,” Millsap said. “Given all that, 2020 was tough for Sonoma County veterans. The pandemic and the wildfires really wreaked havoc, and that was on top of the stresses from isolation, lack of housing and financial hardship many of them were already experiencing. Stress has also taken a real toll on our staff. It’s been difficult.”

New hurdles in pandemic

Richard Jones, CEO of Sonoma County Vet Connect, said his organization also has been hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Vet Connect typically works out of the Veterans Memorial Building near the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, but access has been severely limited because of quarantine strictures.

“In the past, we’ve participated in outreach at the vets building — events where providers would set up tables and the veterans would circulate, signing up for whatever they needed, from Social Security to housing,” said Jones, who, like Henry, is a Navy veteran who served on an LST during the Vietnam War.

“But that’s stopped for the foreseeable future. We have two 40-foot-long Conex containers full of things homeless or disadvantaged veterans can use — tents, clothes, sleeping bags, food — but distribution has been extremely difficult due to the pandemic.”

What’s needed right now, Jones said, is cash.

“I know it’s a tough time for everyone, but cash lets us respond immediately to veterans with needs,” he said. “Whether it’s short-term rent, money to get a car fixed — we’ll take care of it. We’re a completely volunteer organization, and all our donations go directly to veterans.”

Emergency housing is the primary focus for Vet Connect right now, Jones said. The organization is working to get homeless veterans off the streets and into local motels, including the Palms Inn Motel on Santa Rosa Avenue.

“We have about 60 veterans in there now,” Jones said. “It changes a person when you put a roof over his head. A guy feels all alone out there on the street, because he is alone. But when he has a place to come back to, to shower and clean his clothes, when he knows he has brothers and sisters who care about him, he changes. He becomes a different person. He can help other vets. He can get a job. That link with poverty and desperation has been broken.”

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