Volunteers turn out to help homeless veterans

The Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

It was a good day to stand down.

Volunteer groups bivouacked Friday in North Park to provide services to homeless veterans in Billings, estimated to number 400.

Host group Volunteers of America Wyoming and Montana said roughly 160 veterans made it to the all-day event that offered free shoes, sleeping bags, food and other services. Turnout was strong given the mistrust some homeless veterans have of private and government organizations.

“It is the primary issue when you’re living in survival mode and somebody shows up. A lot of these veterans aren’t looking for a handout. They want a hand up,” said Heath Steel, executive vice president of Volunteers of America Wyoming and Montana.

Volunteers gave out more than 100 pairs of shoes, 90 pair of underwear and 50 bed rolls. The VOA is planning fall stand downs in the fall in Billings and Casper to help homeless veterans prepare for winter and get flu and pneumonia vaccinations. The events are rooted in an old wartime tradition of putting down arms to rehabilitate.

“Both sides during a war would take a break from the war and allow their men to get clean showers a good meal, a day of rest and then they came back at it,” said Jeffrey Holsinger of Volunteers of America.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., spoke during the event. He emphasized veterans’ benefit improvements made by the Senate. A member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester has drafted several amendments to improve veteran benefits and veteran access for healthcare in rural areas.

Tester said he was approached by a veteran in Eastern Montana shortly after taking office and warned that the veterans were overdue for attention.

“He said ‘You got a lot to do if you’re going to live up to the promises this country made to veterans,’” Tester said. “You know, that veteran was right.”

Earlier this year, the senator secured a grant to offset the costs of shuttling the Montana veterans to and from medical appointments around the state. The work is done free by Montana’s Disabled American Veterans.

Rarely do the wheels on the bus quit going round for Montana’s DAV.

The group logged 848,364 miles shuttling more than 17,000 veterans to and from medical appointments last year, said Norman Paulson, commander of Montana DAV’s 10th Chapter, which services Billings. It did so entirely with volunteer drivers piloting a few dozen passenger vans and short busses bought with private donations.

“We buy the vans then give them to the VA. The VA pays for the maintenance. The problem we’ve had is some of these small communities can’t afford a van,” Paulson said.

Paulson said the federal help was needed. The group is also looking for more volunteer drivers.