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Vets line up for annual Stand Down

| October 5, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Veterans and family members lined up in the rain outside Libby VFW Post No. 1548 on Saturday to register for the sixth annual Northwest Montana Veterans Stand Down.

The line stretched across the parking lot at noon, but the wet wait was worth it. Inside the building there were rows and rows of free military clothing as well as a free turkey lunch with all the trimmings. Between 1,000 and 2,000 veterans from Montana, Idaho and Washington showed up for the event which concluded Sunday.

Organizer Al Erickson of Kalispell scanned the crowd late Saturday morning and began counting.

"One .. two … three," he said. "There's four … five," he said. "I see five homeless in here right now."

Erickson said it's largely an invisible problem that people don't think about, or deny that it exists. That's particularly true in smaller towns, he said, because big cities have lots more agencies that provide services for homeless and others who need a hand.

During the Stand Down, more than 100 volunteers were only too happy to give a welcome hand and pat on the back to men and women who served their country — and are struggling a bit now to make ends meet.

They handed out military shirts, pants, boots, jackets, gloves, duffel bags and even canteens. Outside, awnings kept the rain off racks of civilian clothing for children and adults.

A steady stream of hungry men, women and children passed by the VFW kitchen. Anita Cole headed up a full kitchen crew of volunteers. They served turkey, potatoes and gravy along with stuffing on Saturday.

"Twenty-three monsters," Cole responded when asked how many turkeys were cooked.

There was barley beef soup for those who arrived on Friday. Sunday's menu included spaghetti, stew and turkey sandwiches.

Erickson and Jim Megahan, a former Navy man, help run a food pantry and clothing outlet for veterans in Kalispell. The center supplied much of the civilian clothing given away at the Stand Down.

Megahan said they get five or six veterans coming through the food pantry each week who live in their vehicles. He said it's particularly painful to see those who've fought for their country struggle just to get by.

"Without them, it's scary to think where we'd be," Megahan said.

Jim Brown, who did two tours in Vietnam, came to Stand Down with his wife Paula. The Eureka couple relies on the event for warm winter clothing each year.

"We're thankful for the coats and other clothes," Paula said as they loaded their car with goods, including some white arctic bunny boots. "It gets us through the winter. We live in a cold place."

"It definitely fills a need," Jim said.

Besides getting warm clothing, veterans had resources inside the VFW to help in other ways. AARP had an informational booth, and the Veterans Administration Montana Health Care Center passed out information about federal benefits available to vets and their dependents.

Even packets of toiletries — toothpaste, tooth brushes, shampoo, razors, mouth rinse — were given away. All it required for admission was a military ID card, and the line at the door stayed long much of early Saturday afternoon.

Erickson, who has been involved organizing all the Northwest Montana Stand Downs, said attendance was down a little this year from 2004. It might have been because of bad weather or gas prices, he said.

But there were still lots of appreciative people coming and going. It was satisfying for Erickson, who is already looking forward to the seventh annual event.

When will he begin working on next year's Stand Down?

"I started on it two months ago," he said with a grin.