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Veterans gather in Libby for annual Stand-Down

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| October 6, 2009 12:00 AM

A man in a red T-shirt marked “volunteer” peered around Libby’s VFW Hall Saturday morning at a line of veterans flowing from the entrance, across the parking lot, around the fence and down the street.

“I thought the line was getting shorter,” he commented before returning to his post.

Chaos of a cheerful nature took over the VFW building last weekend when veterans from northwest Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington gathered for Libby’s annual Stand Down, an event to help the area’s homeless and impoverished veterans.

Host of the largest Stand Down in the nation seven of the past 10 years, Libby’s event has served up to 2,500 people in one weekend.

Veterans waited to gain entry into an assembly line that offered free surplus military clothing, camping gear, boxes of food, flu shots, toiletries and a hot meal. They also had access to a health-care provider and a benefits counselor.

“The Stand Down is when you pull somebody off the front lines into the back zone and feed them and clothe them and give them medical help and whatever else they need in a safe zone,” said veteran Allen Erickson, founder of Libby’s Stand Down and Kalispell’s Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry and Clothing Outlet. “That’s what we do in the Stand Down. We get the guys out of the woods or whatever, we give them flu shots, they see doctors, and we sign them into the benefits system.”

Montana has one of the largest veteran populations per capita, a fact that Erickson is deeply aware of. The number of people that aren’t signed up to receive their veteran benefits is staggering, Erickson said.

“We had 365 (veterans) last year that didn’t know they had any benefits,” Erickson said. “No matter how many you get through here, next year there’s always more.”

Stand Down volunteers came from Libby, Troy, Kalispell and Thompson Falls – many of which were veterans themselves.

“We’re vets helping vets,” said Ken Traughber of Kalispell as he sorted through a pallet of surplus gloves. “That’s what we do.”

Erickson and nearly 20 of his family members also staffed different stations during the weekend-long frenzy.

“We each do our own little part, I guess,” said Erickson’s daughter, Ginger Davis.

Davis operated an outside tent chockfull of secondhand clothing and shoes free for anyone to pick through. To get inside the VFW Hall, however, veterans had to provide proof of service.

Mark Hubbard traveled from Marion with his wife and 7-year-old daughter at 5:30 a.m. Saturday to beat the rush. He heard about the program years ago through a friend.

“The first time we came, she was in a stroller,” he said about his daughter. “It’s nice to see that someone cares about the veterans.”

An Army surplus store in Kalispell allows Hubbard to trade the new clothes he receives at the Stand Down for a pair of expensive work boots. He wouldn’t normally be able to afford the boots, he says, and he needs a high-quality pair because he has a weak ankle.

Each veteran’s story is different, Erickson said. Some live near or below the poverty line, some are homeless because they want to be and others are homeless because of circumstances.

Erickson recalls a veteran that his wife, Linda Erickson, took under her wing. They saw the man again two years later.

“He was clean, his hair was cut and he had a job. His mother told my wife it was all because she took an interest in him and cared about him,” Erickson said. “We see that quite a bit.”