Courier Post - 2016 - CHERRY HILL - Army veteran Shawn Woods fell two stories while helping a friend on a house project and still can't work.
Jose Aponte, a wounded Army veteran from Camden who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, used his money to pay for his mother's and brother's funeralsand then could not pay his rent.
Gui Leadum found himself laid off from a welding trade job at a shipyard.
On Friday they were with other fellow veterans who also have faced problems, including divorce or a relationship breakup, post-traumatic stress disorder, war wounds, mounting medical bills and substance abuse.
These men and women who gave to their country all had one more common thread: They are either currently homeless or were recently homeless and trying to get back on their feet.
That plight is what lured 177 of them to Stand Down South Jersey, an annual event at the Cherry Hill Armory of the New Jersey National Guard where homeless and at-risk veterans received social and medical service, clothing and other goods, food and information on veteran benefits and claims.
"I think it's great they have all these help stations here for whatever services you need," said Woods, 51, a Trentonian and veteran of Grenada whose military job was repairing firing tubes on Army tanks.
"It's also great to meet other veterans and to see so many volunteers come out and show vets a little bit of love. I appreciate it."
With two fused ankles and chronic pain, Woods said his sister took him in for the time being.
On Friday he filled out some paperwork for disability benefits and collected toiletries from American Red Cross New Jersey Region volunteer Chick Warrington of Clementon. Later it was outside to get clothes, shoes, a coat, duffel bag, backpack and more.
"We're here to help vets, give comfort kits and say 'thank you for your service,' " said June Sernak, the Red Cross region executive director.
"Thank you" could be heard just about everywhere Friday.
U.S. Marine Corp. veteran Don Morton of Camden was able to relax in a reclining chair at the armory. It was not just to rest his legs and feet.
Podiatrist Dr. Karen Galli sat down and began examining his chronic foot problems — blisters, callouses and other issues from too much walking. The doctor then tended to his needs, treating and cleaning Morton's feet.
Podiatry, eye and other medical services were provided by or through the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. VA registered medical assistant Salilhah Fassett helped Galli with foot care.
"This is my second year here and it's been very good both times for me," said the 58-year-old Morton, adding that after living for a long while at a Volunteers of America shelter in Camden he has just moved into an apartment.
Galli advised him he needs regular foot care and should consult with his primary physician at the VA Clinic in Camden.
"Usually the underlying cause of foot problems in homeless veterans is diabetes, whose symptoms include ulcers and neuropathy. Sometimes they may step on a nail or glass, not feel it and may end up losing their toes," the doctor explained.
Morton also needed clothes and was looking forward to the meal being served — ribs, cole slaw, hot dogs, hamburgers, salad and cookies.
Each veteran, most of whom came by provided bus transportation, was assigned a volunteer. Leadum's volunteer was Vietnam veteran Ed Presgraves of Vineland, a 69-year-old member of the Marine Corps League, Semper Marine Detachment 205. "I just wanted to help out vets like myself who are disabled and get them the benefits they deserve.
Stand Down is a military term used to refer to exhausted combat units removed from a battlefront to rest, but today it refers to community-based intervention to help veterans battle street life.
Stand Down South Jersey chairman James Maher said 300 volunteers helped set up, man booths, cook, clean up and disassemble. This year he said Subaru, Ernest & Young and the Battleship New Jersey museum sent many volunteers.
There were social services, veterans organizations and nonprofits represented from the Jersey Shore to Trenton such as Soldiers On, the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Camden County departments, Life at Lourdes, the Veterans Multi-Service Center in Vineland and Backpacks for Life.
"We had an outstanding response and it was very organized," Maher added.
The number of veterans, however, was down for the second year in a row from 217 in 2014 to 204 last year and 177 this year. "I can't say we know why," Maher admitted.
In recent years the VA has pursued new initiatives to end veteran homelessness with money and programs, encouraging nonprofits to participate and seek grants.
Leadum, who also suffers from PTSD, lost his home with his parents after his mother died, but got a room a week ago in Camden.
Despite much criticism in recent years about VA backlog and honesty practices of some high-level staff, he had nothing but praise for its Camden clinic.
"My caseworker, Erica Ellis, is one of the best!"
At a table outside, two volunteer friends from Mount Laurel spent hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to buy Wawa gift cards and distribute them to the veterans.
"We give out the cards from our hearts for the services they gave," one said.
Homeless veterans or their families can call 1-888-8NJ VETS for information on entitlements or visit www.standdownsouthjersey.org
Carol Comegno (856) 486-2473; email@example.com