VETS HELPING VETS: Delaware Valley Network Springs Into Action

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COUNCILMEN David Oh, left, and Mark Squilla flank veterans’ activists Joe Eastman and Chris Hill at fundraiser at Tango in Chinatown to aid Hill, whose family was driven out of its home by fire.

COUNCILMEN David Oh, left, and Mark Squilla flank veterans’ activists Joe Eastman and Chris Hill at fundraiser at Tango in Chinatown to aid Hill, whose family was driven out of its home by fire.

BY TONY WEST/ Chris Hill was used to coming through for his fellow veterans.

He was serving on the board of the Veterans Comfort House in West Philadelphia and rode with the Second Brigade Motorcycle Club, constantly reaching out through both groups to help former service members in need. It was a way of life for him.

Then one day, it was his life on the line. His turn.

Hill (or “Manchu”, as he is called, the nickname of the historic 9th Infantry Regiment in which he served) came back with his wife and nine-year-old daughter from a vacation in August to discover his Chinatown apartment had been ruined in a fire – by water damage from upstairs.

“The sprinkler system ran for two hours,” Hill said. “It collapsed the ceiling above us and the ceiling below us.” Their losses were large: furniture and clothing all shot. Plus they had no home how.

And no insurance either. They had let it lapse.

But they did have one thing: the network of Hill’s fellow veterans in the Delaware Valley.

Enter Joe Eastman, a retired Gulf War naval officer who is now director of veterans’ services at Broad Street Ministry. Homeless veterans in Center City are his special beat; Eastman regularly organizes food, medical care and social services for hundreds, most of them chronically troubled persons.

Hill had a good job, working in a lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. But he was still overwhelmed, a veteran in need.

Eastman sprang into action when he heard of Hill’s crisis. Eastman has a special knack for the $20 “beef and beer” fundraiser; he has pulled together a half dozen of them in the last couple of years. He went to Hill and told him he was going to do a fundraiser for him. Hill reluctantly agreed.

Eastman has deep contacts in Chinatown. “I went to Kenny Poon, the owner of the lounge Tango on Arch Street, and he said, ‘What do you need?’” Eastman related. “So there was no overhead. He threw in all the food, a DJ, karaoke.”

Eastman approached Dom Giordano, the big talker on WPHT-AM radio, and he offered to emcee – about three seconds later. His brother went after sports celebrities and snagged two basketball coaches, the illustrious Phil Martelli of St. Joseph’s and Fran Dunphy from Temple. The Phillies pitched in with a baseball bat, the Flyers with tickets, for a raffle. Councilmen Mark Squilla, who represents Hill’s district, and David Oh, who is a fellow veteran, made appearances.

The Hills are getting back on their feet now. “We’re pretty much on the path back,” Hill said. They’ve replaced their daughter’s clothing and furniture and moved into another apartment in their original building, the old Strawbridge’s warehouse. Mission accomplished.

Next mission?

DONNING extra-judicial costume as a motorcycle rider, Justice Seamus McCaffery ran with his fellow bikers as part of US Marine Corps Toys For Tots delivery parade Sunday.

DONNING extra-judicial costume as a motorcycle rider, Justice Seamus McCaffery ran with his fellow bikers as part of US Marine Corps Toys For Tots delivery parade Sunday.

DELAWARE VALLEY VETS PULL TOGETHER

It was par for the course. Particularly in the Philadelphia area, people have a way of coming together to tackle veterans’ needs. Interventions large and small, often on an informal, ad hoc basis, characterize a culture of mutual support, which local veterans take great pride in.

“We’ve done dozens of them, because only we take care of us,” explained Hill. It’s the service code carried into civilian life.

“We have raised $20,000 in five or six fundraisers,” reckoned Eastman. “Every time, we have found and appreciated the complete support for veterans in the Philadelphia community. If there is ever a veterans’ need, this city comes together.”

City Council has been receptive to pleas for veterans’ assistance, stated Eastman. He mentioned Squilla and Oh in particular, but noted 4th Dist. Councilman Curtis Jones and Councilman at Large Denny O’Brien have also been helpful.

“And Council President Darrell Clarke deserves credit for reestablishing the Veterans Advisory Committee,” he added. This office is now staffed by Wanda Pate and Joyce McKeown. Wanda is a Veterans Service Officer accredited with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

“I can’t think of a time in the last five years when we’ve run into a wall with city officialdom,” Eastman said. “My job’s gotten a lot easier since Wanda and her crew got reenergized.”

But local governments can only do so much. The network of veterans’ activists does not wait around for help from on high. They take direct action whenever it is needed.

“My particular talents lie in coordinating with other organizations, in email campaigns and in work with the Comfort House and my motorcycle club,” Hill explained. “Our network has a good really good working relationship with disparate vets’ organizations.”

Beef-and-beers are one tool. Sometimes Hill just puts out an email blast: Everybody put $5 in an envelope and mail to the following address….

Next month, Hill will throw his traditional catered Christmas Party. Price of admission: a pair of tube socks or boxer shorts, to be donated to veterans.

Sometimes creative thinking and quick work are what it takes to do the job. “One Friday, a vet’s family approached us at the Comfort House. Their veteran had died and the family had no means to bury him. The unfortunate fact is if you served during peacetime and weren’t injured in service, the government doesn’t owe you any funeral benefits. And the cemetery said, ‘If you don’t bring us cash, we’re not burying him.’”

But that didn’t stop the veterans’ activists. They would not abandon a brother in his final hour. Hill dropped everything and got clearance to tap Comfort House relief funds. “I roared over to the funeral parlor at 42nd & Haverford, with the family waiting outside, jumped out of the truck and handed them a cashier’s check,” Hill said.

The veterans’ network does more than just come through for money, Hill went on. They meet service personnel at the airport on their return from Afghanistan – dozens strong – to tell them, “Welcome home!” They deliver Christmas dinners to Gold Star mothers. Once a month they put on a “mini-standdown” at which they feed and clothe homeless veterans, as well as getting them into services.

“We work on everything from immediate relief to longstanding help,” Hill affirmed. We offer ‘hand-ups’, not handouts.”

WOLRD WAR II veterans attended presentation in Union League at Post 405 American Legion where Stan Wojtusik, seated, 2nd from right, told of his battle experiences, and his program to place WW II monuments in various states. Seated are Wojtusik and John Conboy; top, Jon Peterson, post commander; Bill Hahn; Richard Kindt; and Norbert McGettigan. Photo by Joe Stivala

WOLRD WAR II veterans attended presentation in Union League at Post 405 American Legion where Stan Wojtusik, seated, 2nd from right, told of his battle experiences, and his program to place WW II monuments in various states. Seated are Wojtusik and John Conboy; top, Jon Peterson, post commander; Bill Hahn; Richard Kindt; and Norbert McGettigan. Photo by Joe Stivala

Homelessness is a gnawing problem among veterans – a much-bigger problem in most cases than what the Hills faced. There are no good statistics on it, advises Hill, and it is poorly understood. It often goes along with mental problems and substance abuse. Most activists put on finger on Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a major cause.

For this too, the activists have a network. Using a fund set up by parents of an Iraq War vet who was “lost in the streets”, they can refer a mentally wounded warrior to almost 100 psychologists and psychiatrists who are trained in treating PTSD.

These activists say they are driven by those who went before them: the Vietnam veterans. Those who fought in that bitter war seldom came home to parades and speeches. Often they were ignored, avoided – sometimes even badgered and criticized by unthinking civilians of that intensely polarized era. As for the VA, its response to these stresses was primitive. Like the citizenry, the government chiefly wanted to forget.

Some of these veterans arrived at the conclusion that they were on their own and that they had to look after each other. They spawned a tradition of self-help that endures to this day.

“Vietnam vets deserve the credit for what we do,” Hill said. “They have set the standard for care, by ensuring this generation will not undergo what they did.”

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