Tags: Featured Story
When Michael Penney came home from Vietnam in 1969, he had no idea what kind of services and benefits were available to him as a Navy veteran. He didn’t realize he could receive compensation for his service-connected hearing loss. It wasn’t until he started working for the Kern County Veterans Service Department 12 years ago that he filed a claim and qualified for restitution.
Penney says when he returned to Bakersfield after working on heavy cruisers during the Vietnam War, he went back to his previous job in the oil fields. “I never even talked about my time in the service,” he says. “I didn’t know I qualified for anything.”
Many veterans come home from serving their country and, like Penney, don’t know where to turn for assistance. Some of these veterans even become homeless, because they aren’t aware of the resources available to them. In order to educate this population, the Veteran Stand Down, held annually in October, began 14 years ago.
Tonna Mullens, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, volunteers on the Kern County Veteran Stand Down committee. She says the event focuses on getting homeless veterans off the street. But, over the years, the day has evolved into a gathering place where local veterans can come together to find out what programs are available for them and their families.
“The Stand Down helps homeless vets get off the streets and helps them get the services they need. It’s a resource day for all vets that don’t know what services are available to them,” she says. “It amazes me, as a vet, how many services in Kern County are here to help us.
Thanks to the direction and resources of David Torres, Attorney at Law, KCFM spent the day at the Veterans Stand Down interviewing local heroes and learning more about the agencies that help them. KCFM wanted to highlight a few of these organizations that help local veterans:
KERN COUNTY VETERANS SERVICE DEPARTMENT
Kern County Veterans Service Department, under the direction of Michael Penney, works as an intermediary for veterans. He and his staff assist veterans in filing claims to receive the benefits that are due to them. Penney says his office at 1120 Golden State Avenue should be the first stop for veterans as a central point for service. For more information, please call 661-868-7300 or visit www.kernvets.org.
WOUNDED HEROES FUND (WHF)
Since the opening of its local chapter four years ago, Wounded Heroes Fund (WHF) has helped hundreds of veterans and their families. Executive Director Wendy Porter says in order to receive services from the local WHF, the veteran must have a connection to Kern County, have been wounded either physically or mentally, and have been honorably discharged.
Porter says WHF supports veterans in many ways including helping build houses, giving financial assistance, and providing community network connections. One of their signature events, Kern County Hospital-ity trip, brings WHF volunteers and staff to military hospitals like Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center, and Balboa National Naval Medical Center where they prepare meals for recently injured veterans. With many local restaurants like Café Med, Luigi’s, Mexicali, and Dewars on board, Porter says, “We take the best of Bakersfield to them.”
A daughter of a Vietnam veteran, Porter finds a passion in her work with wounded heroes. “I want to make sure the experience for these kids returning home is way better than what the Vietnam vets came back to,” she says.
For more information, please call 661-328-8600 or visit www.TheWoundedHeroesFund.org.
EMPLOYMENT DEVELOPMENT DEPARTMENT (EDD)
The Employment Development Department (EDD) makes helping veterans find gainful employment a priority. Army Veteran Valorie Dixon, local Veterans Employment Specialist of EDD, says the EDD helps veterans with resumes, interviewing skills, and career development. This agency hosts a Veteran’s Job Club every Tuesday morning at 9:00 a.m. at their Career Services Center.
“Our goal is to employ veterans within 90 days of the time they sign up with us,” Dixon says. “We have a 100 percent success rate.”
For more information, please call 661-635-2612 or visit www.edd.ca.gov.
CALIFORNIA VETERANS ASSISTANCE FOUNDATION (CVAF)
California Veterans Assistance Foundation (CVAF) helps homeless veterans or at-risk-of-becoming-homeless veterans with their transitional housing needs. Deborah Johnson, President of CVAF and a Desert Storm Army veteran, says they currently have 51 beds to serve single, male veterans. But, CVAF plans to use four federal grants to expand its population to help women, children, and veterans with dependents by spring of 2013. CVAF also has a nine bed Step-Up program to allow some residents a grace period to complete their transition to independent living. They also refer veterans to other agencies, if they cannot help with housing assistance. For more information, please call 661-324-0086 or visit www.cavaf.org.
BAKERSFIELD VET CENTER
Housed next door to the Kern County Veterans Service Department, the Bakersfield Vet Center at 1110 Golden State Avenue offers readjustment counseling services for veterans and their families. Armando Trujillo, lead work study for the Vet Center and Marine veteran, says when he returned from Iraq in 2003, he didn’t know about his eligible benefits. “It’s important to get these vets as soon as possible and let them know what’s available,” he says.
The Vet Center gives combat veterans high quality readjustment counseling services that helps them and their families regain normalcy in their lives. Trujillo says some of these veterans think they can work out their issues on their own and don’t need counseling. “If they have a family, I tell them, don’t do it for yourself then, do it for your kids,” he says.
For more information, please call 661-323-8387 or visit www.va.gov/rcs.
THE JEREMY STAAT FOUNDATION
In 2011, The Jeremy Staat Foundation was founded by Jeremy Staat, a retired NFL player, United States Marine, and Iraqi War veteran. “The biggest thing with our organization is that we advocate for all veterans,” Staat says. “We bring unity and awareness to some of the issues that our local veterans face.”
Since its establishment, his foundation has raised over $560,000 for the Kern County Wall of Valor, completed a 100-day bicycle ride to raise awareness for veterans issues, and continues to bring living history into local classrooms through its Veterans Speaking Board. “This is my way of giving back to those veterans that came before me,” he says.
For more information, please call 661-330-1411 or visit www.thejeremystaatfoundation.org.
OTHER LOCAL RESOURCES FOR VETERANS:
American Legion 661-324-9453
Bakersfield National Cemetery 661-867-2250
California Department of Veteran Affairs 559-600-5436
County Veterans Service 661-868-730
Disabled American Veterans 661-363-6441
Employers Training Resource 661-336-6700
Military Order of the Purple Heart email@example.com
Veterans Foreign Wars 661-204-7651
Three Marines, stationed at the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in Bakersfield, said this Thanksgiving they are thankful for family and friends. Corporal Ronnie Hall, who served in Afghanistan from Meridian, Mississippi, says, “I am thankful to see another day.” (Staff Sargent Vittorio Garcia, from Corpus Christi, Texas; Sargent Everard Salazar, from Dallas, Texas; and Corporal Ronnie Hall).
Jason Portell, a Wounded Heroes Fund volunteer and Navy vet who returned from Iraq in 2003, poses with Wendy Porter, executive director of the Wounded Heroes Fund. Jason says,“I am thankful for my family, friends, and my kids. I am thankful to be around for the holiday season because some of the guys don’t get that opportunity.” When KCFM asked Wendy what she was thankful for she said her family and friends. “I am also thankful to live in a community that helps wounded heroes,” she says.
Ismael “Smiley” Gonzales, a Vietnam Veteran and Senior Vice Commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ District 9, says “I am thankful to be alive. I am grateful that my children are healthy. I am grateful to God.”
Armando Trujillo, lead work study at Bakersfield Vet Center and Marine Veteran who served in Iraq, says he’s thankful for the opportunities he’s received because of Vet Center and the counseling. “And now I’m able to help – that’s what I’m thankful for.”
Vietnam Veteran Richard McGee says he and his wife Susie spend their retirement volunteering for the American Red Cross, picking up trash with Mayor Harvey Hall, and recently they spent four months on a road trip visiting 17 states. “I am thankful for being retired, so I can do anything I want,” he says.
“I am thankful for Freedom! We are still a free country. We have a lot,” says Michael Penney, Interim Director for Kern County Veterans Service Department and a Vietnam Veteran.
“I am thankful for the many blessings God has given me, my wife Janelle, and the best gift she could give me, my son Tristen,” says Jeremy Staat of The Jeremy Staat Foundation. “I am also thankful for a community that supports us the way they do.”
“I am thankful for my family and the chance to spend another holiday season with them,” says Wesley Barrientos, a Wounded Heroes Fund board member and Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq.