The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

July 2004
FEATURE
 

"It Takes A Whole Bunch of People To Make It Work"

Operation Stand Down Nashville
 

BY JIM BELSHAW

They picked up more than three hundred homeless veterans on the streets of Nashville, and they felt pretty good about themselves when the three days ended. They had reason to. They'd done good work. On Friday, at pre-arranged pick-up points, vans spread out across the city, loaded up veterans, and took them back to the Nashville Stand Downthree days when the homeless veterans could take a break from what had become the routine of their lives on the streets. Haircuts, shaves, dental work, medical assistance, a place to sleep--the Stand Down had grown beyond everyone's expectations.

On Sunday, it ended. "We'd pat ourselves on the back and on Sunday afternoon, guess what happens," Retired Lt. Col. Bill Burleigh said. "We'd load them up in the vans and take them right back to where we picked them up on Friday. It was a sinking feeling on Sunday afternoon. We wound up asking ourselves: ' How much good did we really do?' "

The answer came later, after Burleigh began volunteering in 1995.

The Stand Down concept began in San Diego in 1987. The idea was to bring community leaders togetherlocal, state, and federalto provide a respite for homeless veterans, an outreach effort that would provide veterans with information and services to help rebuild shattered lives.

Nashville held its first Stand Down in 1993, a three-day event where veterans living on the streets or in shelters received physicals, legal reviews, IRS and Social Security assistance, help from VA regional offices with claims paperwork, and other assistance.

When Burleigh arrived two years later, still a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee National Guard, he began as a volunteer. "I volunteered to take it because I really enjoyed working with the people," he said. "I did that for two years and then I retired. I was then asked to come back about a year later as a volunteer on the board. Then we started talking about going full time."

He's been the Stand Down director for four years now.

"It takes a whole bunch of people to make this work," Burleigh said. "There's been a lot of folks involved in this. Half the original committee is still on the event committee. I never dreamed it would become what it's become. When I retired, I had no plans of getting this involved."

After that Sunday afternoon, when their hearts sank at the thought of transporting the homeless veterans back to the streets from which they had come, the Nashville group decided to do more.

"Out of that was born our full-time agencyOperation Stand Down Nashville," Burleigh said. "That was four and a half years ago. We worked closely with the city, and our board of directors got a place for a service center and four houses. We started offering services or at least making a referral for them. We've grown to the point where we're a United Way agency. We have grants from the VA, grants from HUD, and private donations. We've been blessed with a tremendous amount of support. Because we've been doing the event for so long, we have tremendous inroads to the city and state service organizations."

Burleigh said Operation Stand Down Nashville finds on average 240 jobs per year for homeless veterans. They start tracking retention at six months and so far average 70 percent. He said finding jobs for veterans presents a peculiar problem.

"This may sound like a bold statement, but if you have served your country in the military, you have put yourself and your family at economic risk," Burleigh said.

By way of evidence, he tells a personal story. Retired from the National Guard, Burleigh went looking for a job. He had a college degree and command experience. His last job for the state of Tennessee saw him supervising 44 employees and working with a $135-million budget.

Burleigh sought out help from two executive headhunters. They told him to come back after he had experience in a real job.

"They told me that it was only after I had a real job with some real experience that they could help me," Burleigh said. "Veterans have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans. You're twice as likely to have a period of homelessness in your life than a non-veteran. What we have to do is get it across to employers that when they hire a veteran, they're dealing with someone who knows organization and structure. He has discipline and so many other intangibles you don't get with the non-veteran. We're finding people jobs and convincing employers it's a good idea to hire veterans."

Burleigh said that since the first Stand Down in San Diego in 1987, about a thousand such events have been held around the country.

"We still do our annual event," he said. "More than a hundred agencies contribute services for it. We now have 13 full-time employees and 12 or 13 part-time. Our current governor of Tennessee was mayor of Nashville when we began. He was instrumental in helping and continues to support us."

Burleigh said the organization has about a 40 percent success rate in rehabilitating substance abusers, mostly alcoholics. Granting that there is a "certain amount of revolving door" when working with substance abusers, he finds gratification in seeing four out of ten reclaim their lives.

"It's nice when someone makes that commitment to treatment," he said. "Four or five months later, they're standing taller, thinking clearly, and they're ready to go out and try to live as responsible human beings. We try to take the whole-person approach for those who are serious about their lives. We talk to them about where they're at in their lives, the decisions and choices they've made, and we offer them housing, transportation, clothes, food--whatever it takes to help them get back to responsible living."

   

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