Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #064. First published in the St. Cloud Times Nov. 27, 2012

In my thanks Thursday, veterans loomed large.

A few weeks earlier, alerted by my friend Jay Keller of Sartell, a Marine who served in Vietnam, I had gone to St. Cloud StandDown, which brings together in one location — the St. Cloud Armory on Veterans Drive — a wide range of supportive services accessible to all veterans.

I saw hundreds of vets and scores of service providers representing more than 80 organizations, including Central Minnesota Legal Services, Brain Injury Support Group, Alcoholics Anonymous, Whitney Senior Center, Metro Bus, Social Security and The Salvation Army. Free massages and haircuts were offered. Active-duty military, some of them 70 years younger than the World War II vet I talked to, were handing out clothing and food.

StandDown, a military term meaning relaxation of status, was adopted as the title of a practice developed during the Vietnam war to give battle-weary soldiers an opportunity to renew their spirit, health and sense of well-being. St. Cloud StandDown, Inc., a nonprofit staffed by volunteers and administered by a board comprised of veterans and community representatives, was established in 1998 and has held StandDowns every April and October.

StandDown is a level playing field. A vet who is homeless, a vet who is doing fine, a vet recently released from prison — are all welcome, no questions asked and no partiality granted. Not unlike the battlefield, where all are in it together, everyone watching everybody else’s back.

Dickie Voth, age 90, retired English teacher, joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943, the year after this branch of the Navy was created, and shortly after her husband, John, with whom she had eloped (they just celebrated their 70th anniversary), got his Army Air Corps deployment. Dickie, who worked at the Pentagon in the Secret Department, told me a tale of intersections and separations during the war years as she and John were sent hither and yon and occasionally to the same place.

But what struck me most about Dickie’s story were two things.

First, her family’s record of service to our country: her father in World War I; four brothers in the Navy and one in the Army in World War II; her husband, 27 years; herself, three; her daughter, 21; and her son, four — that’s 55 years in her own immediate family.

Second, the financial support she and John received from the government: If a vet started a business, the G.I. Bill would make up the difference between monthly income and $100 (nearly $1,200 today) until the business was stable. This is how the hugely successful St. Cloud Hobby Shop got going. The Voths and the government built that together.

Diane (DJ) Voth, Dickie’s daughter, was in the Air Force for four years and the Navy for 17, serving in patient care and as a counselor, mostly for soldiers fighting alcohol and drug addiction, especially those returning from prisoner of war camps in Vietnam. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t recognized then, but we knew there was something else besides the immediate problems,” she said.

DJ, alarmed by the dire conditions in which some veterans live, including homelessness, encourages others to join her in making blankets, gloves, scarves and hats. The blankets are “large enough to provide warmth when sleeping under the stars,” she said, adding that the blankets at the table hosted by Women in the Military Central Minnesota Unit were gone within the first hour of StandDown.

“My biggest challenge is getting through others’ fear of asking for help,” says Mike Mills of Freeport, veterans’ peer mentor for Independent Lifestyles, Inc. Mike, retired from the Minnesota Army National Guard, told me about his “reborn day,” June 14, 2005, when he was severely burned by an IED in Iraq. By miracles of medicine and with the unwavering support of his wife Suki, son Aaron (now 22), and daughter Kenzie (now 17) — “when we’re deployed our families are deployed too” — Mike is available for others. “There’s never enough help, but there’s more available than most vets realize,” he said.

At the Thanksgiving table I was grateful not only for Jay, Dickie, DJ, Mike and the millions of other veterans whose day of commemoration was Nov. 11, but for my two nephews serving — and future veterans — Army Lt. Col. Keith Jarolimek and Marine Lt. James O’Hara, their wives Kim and Angie and their kids.

StandDown and Veterans Day call for a standup salute.