Brothers for life

Veterans turn to each other for support, hope at Stand Down

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

DIXON - The camaraderie among these veterans never vanished, even decades after service.

The years marked 52-year-old Jimmy Detels, a Vietnam vet, the way they did the other veterans at the Dixon Fairgrounds, with whispers of silver hair masking pained expressions.

Like former Marine Detels, they came to the North Bay Stand Down, a three-day encampment for veterans, from near and far, in run-down cars that sell for under $300 to Blue Bird buses sent by Travis Air Force Base. Each man represented a different era, a different war story to tell.

They stood, more than 215 soldiers who served this country for the sake of freedom, between two rows of military tents on the grassy area of the fairgrounds, some dressed in fatigues, others in field jackets, conversing as if they were in a unit, all stationed on a military base somewhere remote, a place they didn't belong.

For the three days of the Stand Down, these men, many suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, shared more than war stories, more than horrific images they want to forget but memories won't allow. They shared the burden of being homeless, of living in cardboard boxes, under bridges or in transitory housing.

They came to this annual Stand Down to find a temporary safe haven among their brothers, a place that offered more than 75 types of resources and services to help rehabilitate them back to the strides of society, such as veteran, medical and dental services. They were soldiers all over again, not homeless statistics.

It was a place where each veteran lends a hand to another, like Detels helping 36-year-old Dennis Hardy, a Bosnia veteran, with a new backpack he received at the Stand Down. It was one era of unsung heroes assisting another, proud men knowing they can trust their fellow veterans because they each served their country during times of war and peace.

And they do this, Detels says, because a brother never turns his back on a brother. They understand each other.

"We were taught to risk our lives for our brother, to never leave another vet," he said. "And we still do that, it's for life."

The unsung soldier

Detels, a man who can sense the movement of a falling leaf 15 feet away, was a point man for a fire team in Vietnam, serving two tours because, he says, it was the patriotic thing to do.

His role in the war was to lead a group of seven to 15 men through the fields in Vietnam to search and destroy, search and recover, and sweep the fields and jungles.

Images of people hung from trees, men falling into snake pits and humans placed in bamboo cages filled with leaches remain vivid in his mind, he says, and almost instantly the memories can be seen through his dull green eyes.

And they were scared, he will admit, because they never knew if "Charlie was in the village underground waiting to mow you down."

He didn't want to kill, he says adamantly, and still carries that pain etched into a soul that remains in Vietnam.

"We went to do a service, an act for a country that we thought was behind us," he says. "But then to come home and not have anyone stand behind us and instead stand against us, cuss at us and put us down for things we were ordered to do, was something we could never understand.

"We never got recognition for what we did except for the lives we took," he continues. "Murderers is what they called us, baby killers and stuff like that. How can you feel proud to come back to a country who treats you like that?"

After serving the tours, Detels came back to the United States carrying a baggage of guilt beneath a drug addiction, and was ultimately arrested three times, serving a total of 20 years in prison.

His first arrest, he says, was soon after his discharge, after learning his "lady" married an old friend, which led to a bar fight.

"I thought I was in the jungle again, fighting for my life," he says of the fight. "I picked him up and drove his head through the concrete like a jack-hammer until they pulled me off."

He was homeless after prison, living on the streets and scrounging for food in Dumpsters. He didn't care about living, he was ready to die.

"Being homeless is the worst feeling in the world," he says as the sun highlights his tattoo-covered arms. "You have no one that cares, no one to wonder where you're at or if you're coming home.

"You don't know where your next meal is coming from and you have no desire," he continues. "You just want to take care of the basic needs of survival."

Detels has been clean and sober for 13 months, living in a veteran transitional housing facility on Treasure Island, and is working, taking computer classes and will start college in January 2007.

He now dreams of a future, he says, whereas he didn't have one before.

"I had pain and suffering and hatred in my heart. I was scared to open myself up because I didn't want to feel that pain anymore. I didn't want my heart torn out of my chest again and then handed back," he says.

But some men just don't care.

The loner

Danny Pieterick, 51, is a homeless Fairfield man who walks the streets with his head down. But an air of pride filled his darting eyes and thin stature at the Stand Down.

Deep lines frame his thin face and it appears he is quick to anger. But he says he's a happy man, given his situation.

At one time, the Army man served as an escort for presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, marching in parades, standing in ceremonies and funerals and becoming a part of the Washington, D.C., scenery. He then worked at Mare Island as a boiler maker and blacksmith until it closed down. And the doors to drugs opened up.

He is a methamphetamine user and says he does it to avoid drinking because if he did, he would drive and "kill someone" by accident.

He works here and there for a few dollars each day to support a habit that costs him around $200 a week. But he's not addicted, he says, he can stop at any time.

Pieterick walks during the night, reserving catnaps for daytime. He doesn't trust the darkness. Prison taught him that.

He is hoping to raise his pension from 40 percent to 100 percent at the Stand Down but as of its last day, he still didn't know if it would happen. In the meantime, he will continue walking the streets, lost in the shadows of fleeting moments.

"I'm a loner but I'm blessed that I am. I don't believe in what society stands for these days. You get arrested so many times for nothing," he says. "And people support that? Probably 85 percent of those in jail are from drugs.

"All that money they put into prisoners they should put into rehabilitation," he says in a low voice. "And the money for a helicopter or armored car? C'mon, an armored car in Fairfield? Why, when you have all these people living in the streets."

For some, however, they wanted to find a way out.


Oliver Franklin, a 50-year-old Army veteran known as "Sarge," is a man who stands over 6 feet tall with a voice as raspy as a raven's caw.

He once rode with Harley-Davidson bikers, consequently joining the Army to serve in the Vietnam War as his fellow riders did. Only troops began pulling out soon after he finished boot camp in 1972.

He served the country for 14.5 years, almost mimicking that time later as a homeless man on the streets of Fairfield. He knows the Food Bank is no longer a help because they now donate their food to churches. Sometimes, he says, a person can get a couple of potatoes, green beans and six eggs across town.

Franklin, who dreams of riding a Harley again, started using drugs at 11 and stopped just 10 months ago, after finding refuge with the Pheonix Hope Program.

He still carries a brass ring that at one time damaged a few smiles, only to remind himself of the person he left behind.

"Every day when I see that ring on my keychain, it reminds me of the animal I was," he says. His eyes well up with tears. "I'm not that animal anymore and I don't need it no more. I have God on my side."

A car salesman

Dennis Hardy, a thin man who sold cars after being discharged from the Army, served in Bosnia from 1996-97.

His demeanor is serious, occasionally sneaking a quick chuckle in between his words, and speaks of his time in Bosnia with remorse and repugnance.

"During one of our convoys, I saw two Serbians beating a Muslim lady with the butts of an M-16 or whatever, and we couldn't do anything. We just stopped and looked," he says. His eyes get harder and his cigarette inhales get deeper as he continues.

"Some people were taking pictures hoping that would stop them, but it didn't." he says. "We weren't allowed to shoot them. Imagine seeing someone helpless looking at you, knowing you can help but watching you just watch her? Can you imagine that feeling?"

He remembers the buildings by Hilltop 420, all ridden with bullets and echoes of lives that once stood within those walls.

"It sucked," he says.

Ten years after leaving the Army, Hardy is homeless because of financial reasons and for the moment, doesn't mind living in the streets with his dog, Gate, especially after receiving clothes, a sleeping bag, shoes and medical and dental services.

"I'm like a real person again," he says. "Out there, people look at you like you're a different species, the compassion is lost. But this helped restore my dignity, it's giving me a sense of hope."

Tents are down

By early Thursday morning, all 18 tents were taken down. The music had stopped, services were packed, the clothes had been picked over and more than half of the troops and a few guests were already on buses to nowhere.

Pat Sheehan, whose 24-year-old son, Army Spc. Casey, was killed in Iraq, watched as the men packed their new equipment and clothing.

"People speculate that you can't be against a war and still support the troops. Well, this is one way to support them," says the ex-husband of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. "I heard of one young veteran who was here, born in 1978. My son was born in 1979 and I can't imagine my son being homeless after serving his country. I can't imagine anyone being homeless after serving their country.

"I hope people will pay more attention to their plight," he continues. "If we're going to support our troops, we should support them, when they come home and afterward. Support is support."