We arrived at the event in Riverfront Park Thursday morning and everyone was in high gear. Tents set up, people bustling about every which way. The location at the park was perfect. All tents were set up in a shallow basin adjacent to the river. The grass, a rich green with oak trees scattered sparsely across the plot—not overwhelming the area, but providing an ideal amount of shade. Naturally, for a late August day in northern California, the sun was bright, and there was not a cloud in the sky.
The sounds of the leaves faintly brushing around in the trees and voices filling the air, only occasionally interrupted by the sounds of a Harley’s deep, perpetual groaning. The motorcycles, as you can imagine, were abundant, for these were predominantly Veterans of Vietnam, “Eternal Riders” as they call themselves.
Three whole days in late August were dedicated solely for the benefit of veterans in California. The providers for this Stand Down ran the gamut: local mental health groups, the American Legion, local salons, VA mobile vet center, Salvation Army, massage therapists, and many others were present. Recology, the waste services company for the Marysville area even provided the food for the first day! A local salon gave free haircuts for two whole days as well. Talk about a show of support!
As I stood on the edge of the basin observing the layout of the event, a peculiar smell hit me. When I discovered the source, I was rather intrigued. It was coming from the American Indian Veterans Association (AIVA) tent, where they were burning sage. I became interested in the organization. I spoke at length with one of its representatives, Pedro Molina, or “Chief Mo” as he was known. He told me about AIVA and its outreach and advocacy work on behalf of Native American veterans. He informed me that California has roughly 20,000 Native American Veterans and that AIVA’s goal was to reach out to all of them, especially in the rural areas and let them know of the benefits they are entitled to.
Chief Mo was serious about the organization’s mission, but he was certainly not without humor. He was a member of the Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, which was not recognized by the government until 1979. He went on to tell me about his being drafted in 1970, saying, “When I got drafted I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony—I can’t win a game of bingo to save my life, but I got drafted number three!” The laughs continued as he told me he began his Army career as an airborne cook. “Basically, I was jumping out of a plane with a stove on my back,” he joked.
Another unique organization caught my attention. The Healing Light Institute was right next to the women’s health tent that DVNF sponsored for the event. I was fortunate enough to speak to the director of the organization, Donna Arz. She started what was called the Forgotten Soldier program as a way to treat veterans through alternative therapy, such as guided imagery, therapeutic massage, holistic nutrition, and grief counseling, to name a few of their services. Donna and her associate, April Anderson, told me how common it is for veterans with PTSD to turn to alternative therapy when medication and other common treatments are not successful. It was at that point they told me about the suicide prevention program they have, and how they saved a decorated Marine from ending his own life. I was in awe when I watched the news report about it.
I also had the chance to speak with Mike Nichols, the President of Yuba Sutter Stand Down. Mike himself is a Vietnam veteran who works daily to help his fellow veterans. He said that 638 veterans attended the Stand Down in 2011, and that they were expecting even more this year. Mike was able to paint a picture of the veteran mindset for me. I asked him why he thought that there were so many homeless Vietnam veterans. He stated the obvious facts about how unappreciated Vietnam vets were upon their return, but then he elaborated. As he put it, most of these veterans are homeless because they choose to be. They had been cast aside in society long ago, and it is something that stays with them.
When Mike said this, I began to look around at all the veterans in attendance. Long gray hair, scraggly beards, cigarettes permanently fixated upon their lips, and draped in black leather, these men were true warriors. Not just because of their time on the field of battle, but because they have been fighting their whole lives, and still do today. Most that you might greet will give you a brusque “hello,” and move on, cautious of your motives. These are a tough bunch of men, who have never truly seemed to give any sort of trust to anyone in society that wasn’t one of their own.
As April Anderson said to me, so many of these vets have been carrying a heavy burden their whole lives. The hardened expressions on the leathery faces of these veterans tell a story that is difficult to comprehend for those of us who will never experience what they have. Their experience and the difficulty of their lives cannot be perceived by an outsider, which is why they band together in homogenous subcultures—a fraternity of the forgotten, trusting only one another.
Though this may be their perception, it is not the reality. While most won’t understand the intricacies of their struggles, there were hundreds of civilians in Marysville that day that were there to remember, honor, apologize, thank, and pay homage to the men and women who were shown a disrespect that cannot be forgiven.
As Congressman John Garamendi stated in his opening remarks for the event, “We thank them for all they have done, and it is our responsibility as citizens to serve them.” That was the purpose of the Stand Down, to serve the veterans that fell through the cracks.