At 42, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jon Oscars seemed a little young to be inquiring about cemetery space.
But there he stood at the Bakersfield National Cemetery booth, one of dozens providing information and services to military veterans at the 19th annual Kern County Veterans Stand Down held Thursday at Stramler Park.
“I was making a reservation for 40 years from now,” he said of his conversation at the booth. “I hope it’s at least 40.”
Oscars was one of more than 600 military veterans who came to the park just north of downtown Bakersfield to access help and make connections with service providers and other vets. And as a veteran who has struggled with homelessness and who has run afoul of the law, Oscars is among the populations targeted by Stand Down organizers.
“Volunteers in these booths are handing out blankets and jackets and socks,” said Deb Johnson, co-chair of Stand Down and the CEO of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, which helps vets in a variety of ways, including finding stable housing for veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness.
All vets are welcome at the annual event, which expected to serve more than 1,000 hot meals to veterans and the army of volunteers who help make the event possible each year.
One of the most vulnerable groups, historically, has been veterans age 54 to about 60, said Johnson, herself a military veteran. They may have aged out of highly physical jobs, she said, or had a heart attack and can no longer work as a commercial truck driver or heavy equipment operator. Yet they’re too young to collect Social Security.
But Social Security had a booth at Stand Down. So did Bakersfield College which offers retraining and education programs.
“Stand Down is designed to be a one-stop shop for all veterans, but especially vets who are homeless or at risk of homelessness,” said Louis Medina, manager of community impact for Kern Community Foundation, and a member of the event’s organizing committee.
Veterans received such services as food for themselves and their pets, basic medical exams and flu shots, vision exams and getting linked to veterans benefits.
Even haircuts were available.
“We’re here every year,” said Stella Stokes, a teacher at Lyle’s College of Beauty, who was coordinating several student barbers providing free cuts to vets.
“It’s a pleasure,” she said, “providing this service.”
Last year they provided some 150 cuts. This year, they expected to exceed that number.
“I did 36 haircuts last year,” said volunteer barber Joseph DeLuna II. “I’m trying to beat that this year.”
One of the most important services provided at the annual event is veterans court, which helps vets remove certain legal barriers from their record that could keep them from obtaining housing, gainful employment or credit.
“I turned 21 in the jungle,” said U.S. Air Force veteran Mike Reed, 67, who served in Vietnam in 1970 and ‘71.
Reed’s case is pretty simple. He received a traffic ticket after being caught by a red light camera.
The fine was originally close to $500, but it was reduced to $350. He’s been paying it off in payments, but he asked Veterans Court — yes, an official court with a judge is set up in a big, white tent on-site — to forgive the balance of his fine.
Community service hours Reed and other veterans provided to help set up the event on Wednesday are used to offset the fines.
U.S. Army veteran Julian Ramirez, 40, served in Mosul, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But readjusting to civilian life did not come easy.
“My alcoholism and PTSD were not a good combination,” he said.
Ramirez became violent and ended up serving three years in a Texas prison for domestic violence.
But he found support and assistance at Griffin’s Gate, a transitional home in east Bakersfield where he receives services for his PTSD and substance abuse. He’s 78 days sober, and his outlook is upbeat.
“This is my very first Stand Down,” he said. “I never knew anything like this existed.”
For Johnson, who has spent much of her career working with at-risk vets, getting the word out to men like Ramirez and hundreds of others who often simply don’t know what services are available is the name of the game.
Once that connection is made, she said, good things begin to happen.
It’s truly a blessing being a vet helping veterans,” she said.