Volunteers Reach Out to Veterans at Stand Down of South Jersey
The annual event draws hundreds of volunteers to help hundreds of veterans in need.
Robert Harris looked over the line of men snaking past olive-drab tents at the Cherry Hill Armory and saw a group not unlike himself when he came back from war.
A member of the Marine Corps and a combat veteran of Vietnam, Harris came home with scars both physical and mental, and recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and adjusting to life back home wasn’t easy.
But thanks to help from Veterans Affairs and others, Harris said he was fortunate enough to be able to get past all that and transition back to regular civilian life, and now it’s his turn to give back through programs like the annual Stand Down of South Jersey Friday.
“The VA and my friends helped me, and I’m there to help these guys,” Harris said. “That’s what it’s all about: Veterans helping veterans.”
Harris, a member of South Jersey Vietnam Veterans, was one of dozens of volunteers in bright yellow shirts swarming outside the armory, handing out bags of clothing, sleeping bags and more to veterans—some homeless, some just in need—as part of the annual program, which helps about 200 veterans a year
One of the men seeking help in the early afternoon, Phil Bowers, has been through plenty since his time in the Army more than 40 years ago.
Like some, Bowers struggled with addiction—but with help from Veterans Affairs, he’s been sober several years now. Like more than a few others in line alongside him, a difficult economy has made things harder on Bowers.
But being able to come out and get a hand up means a lot to him, and Bowers was grateful for every bit of help—and for being able to get it all at once.
“Everything you want, it’s all here,” he said. “It’s fantastic, it’s amazing they do this for us.”
The services at Stand Down, which has taken place at the armory every year since 1996, run the gamut, from VA benefit counseling and food stamps, to legal services and housing assistance.
But it can be a challenge just getting local veterans to accept the help in the first place, Harris said.
“A lot of them don’t think they deserve anything,” he said.
But humility isn’t necessary, since misfortune touches veterans in many ways, Harris said, especially in today’s climate, with unemployment hovering just below 10 percent in New Jersey.
“There are bad times always, it just seems like it’s more and more now,” he said. “We’ve got to correct that, we really do—as Americans, we have to correct that.”
That’s why, Harris said, it’s even more important now to do as much to help those who will take that hand up, whether it’s at events like Stand Down or wherever else he’s needed.
“This is what we do—volunteer,” he said. “There’s no pay, it’s all in the heart.”