KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Soldiers from the 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Des Moines, Iowa, provided hot meals June 4 and 5 to support veterans through an event called the "Heart of America Stand Down" in Kansas City, Mo., along with troops from the 89th Sustainment Brigade from Wichita, Kan., and 326th Area Support Group from Kansas City, Kan.
Veteran's Administration representatives, outreach organizations and dozens of volunteers from the area were on hand to serve meals and distribute three packed moving trucks of donated clothing.
The Stand Down is designed to help homeless veterans in the area, where they can get needed services in an environment where they are treated with dignity and respect. Meals, clothing, access to medical services, legal counseling and a safe place to rest are just a few of the many benefits the program has been offering since it began here in 1993. This year's event was held outside the Manual Career & Technical Center in Kansas City, Mo.
Supervising the food service personnel was Staff Sgt. Jeffrey McLaughlin of Albert Lea, Minn., a member of the 103rd ESC. "I've never done this before, and it's a great honor to feed these homeless vets out here, and help get them on the right track and get them taken care of," said McLaughlin."
Art Fillmore, founder and co-chairman of the Heart of America Foundation in Kansas City, started his own Stand Down a year after seeing a similar program in 1992 that a fellow Vietnam veteran was running in San Diego since 1989.
"It was supposed to be a five-year program, and we're in our eighteenth year now, so unfortunately the problem is bigger than we thought it was going to be." said Fillmore.
Fillmore estimated on any given night, there are as many as 1,700 homeless veterans on the streets in Kansas City alone, and they see vets from the Korean War up to those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another statistic troubling to him is that the average age of homeless veterans has been 55 for decades, meaning younger vets are replacing older ones as they pass on.
Sgt. Michelle Knabe from Blue Springs, Neb., a supply clerk for the 1011th Quartermaster Company Detachment in Wymore, Mo., said that it has been an eye-opening experience.
"I didn't realize there were so many veterans who are homeless or in need of food and clothing." said Knabe. She said the high point of the experience is giving back to the veterans who have given so much for their country.
Michael Lopez, a Kansas City area resident isn't homeless, but said he's worried he may be soon if he doesn't get his life turned around and clear up some legal issues. He came this weekend because he heard the Jackson County Sheriff's Dept. was willing to work with veterans on clearing up minor legal problems.
"I've been in this depression for two years now, so anything that's going to be benefitting my situation. I'm all for it," said Lopez, adding, "So, I swallowed my pride this year and made a commitment to 'get it together.'"
Lopez called the Stand Down's services a blessing, and more specifically, a "restart button."
Jackson County, Mo., Undersheriff, Col. Hugh Mills, says the legal help the vets receive helps to "break the cycle" and gives non-drug and non-violent offenders a clean slate to aid in rebuilding their lives, since they typically don't have the means to pay off fines creating a perpetual cycle of arrest and fines.
"Usually they have minor brushes with the law; trespassing, an occasional peace disturbance … and they wind up with minor offenses." said Mills adding "These guys are not threats to the community."
Veterans that seek legal help during the Stand Down are escorted to the county courthouse to appear before the judge, and their minor issues are forgiven.
"It cleans their record so that future interaction with law enforcement doesn't have to be negative." said Mills. About 100 veterans sought legal help
Jennifer Gould, Stand Down Coordinator, said that this year's event included over 1,000 volunteers and around 100 service organizations provided assistance in everything from VA benefits to consumer credit counseling. Approximately 40 Soldiers of the 103rd ESC cooked and served over 1,400 meals to the veterans of the Kansas City area.