Donald Blake had a secret about his military career that he wasn't letting everyone in on right away Friday morning.
Blake was out the door of a homeless shelter by 5:30 a.m. and was one of the first of dozens in line by 7:30 a.m. at the fifth annual Stand Down for homeless veterans in Utah. His first handout was a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning.
Then things quickly began to unravel as he sat in a chair waiting for medical attention inside a building on the campus of the George F. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
True, Blake was homeless and had been to other Stand Down events in other states. He said he was 50, from Detroit and a veteran of the Air Force. He said he was discharged in the early 1980s.
But the VA's computers found him out. He was in the military for less than three months. That meant he wasn't eligible for health-care benefits through the VA, not during the Stand Down or at all.
"We certainly don't want to turn him away," said Susan Huff, public affairs officer for the VA Medical Center.
So, Blake, who was hoping to get an eye exam, was allowed to stick around for a free breakfast, but that was about it.
Mike Bingham, who also said he was 50 and in the Air Force, was more honest about his past. As he smoked a cigarette outside of the door where Blake had exited a few minutes earlier, Bingham talked about his disability, his past addiction to morphine and about the Stand Down.
"I think it's a good deal," Bingham said about Friday's event.
If veterans qualify during the Stand Down, they're supposed to go through 10 stations to be eligible for entry into a gymnasium full of free clothes, sleeping bags, rain ponchos, food and volunteers, mostly from Hill Air Force Base.
Airman Troy Roberts received an e-mail at Hill asking for volunteers. He thought the least he could do was put in a few hours for the Stand Down.
"These guys are veterans they did a lot more than I could ever ask for," said Roberts. "They deserve the best we can give them."
For Bingham, that meant getting an identification card and Social Security card, items he said were stolen from him by a relative in Ogden. He left all of his belongings at the last place he was staying, so a duffel bag full of clothes and supplies would come in handy.
"At the end of the day, they're pretty well weighted down," Huff said about all of the free stuff veterans can walk away with.
If attendance was anything like last year's Stand Down, Bingham will have been among more than 200 homeless veterans who took advantage of the VA's assistance in a variety of areas from legal assistance and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder to finding out how to get off the streets.
"That's the whole purpose," said Rich De Blasio, a regional homeless coordinator for the VA in Denver. For some at Friday's Stand Down, he added, it will be their starting point into transitional housing supported by the VA.
After Friday, Bingham said he will continue his treatment for substance abuse through the VA. His goal is to get a job and pick up where his disability check leaves off.
As for Blake, who said he is an alcoholic who panhandles during the day, has a bad knee and doesn't like military haircuts (a clue about his past, perhaps?), he, too, said he would like to get a job and get off the streets. After all, he doesn't like handouts, or so he tells his four children in Detroit, who he said aren't aware of how bad off he is when he calls them occasionally."I always let them know I'm OK," Blake said. "They don't know they think I'm doing well."
E-mail: [email protected]