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Friday, Nov 28, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Two-day ‘Stand Down’ plots civilian glide path for veterans

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HUDSON — Deployed with military precision on fresh-trimmed grass, stark wooden crates flanking the foul line on a Veterans Memorial Park softball field are just the size and shape to suggest a more somber homecoming than the one intended by those responsible for their placement.

Still, the hard fact is whenever two or more combat survivors gather, the subject ultimately turns to absent friends. The presence of pine boxes, even if they are perfectly innocent, just gets them there a little bit quicker.

See that flag flapping on the pole above the backstop? Brian Anderson can tell you about that.

Three years ago, on Sept. 29, 2010, it was flying over Firebase Cobra, then a tenuous U.S. foothold in central Afghanistan’s lawless Uruzgan province, when Special Forces bent on uprooting Taliban irregulars from a nearby village nobody ever heard of came under machine gun and sniper fire.

At the end of an eight-hour firefight, a dozen irregulars were dead or captured, their weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammo confiscated, and the sad assembly of buildings secured. But two of Anderson’s colleagues and friends — Calvin Harrison, a Green Beret medical sergeant, and Mark Forester, an Air Force combat controller — were killed in the effort, their posthumous Bronze and Silver stars, respectively, providing faint comfort for those they left behind.

“After that, a lot of the guys on our team were talking to me,” Anderson says, “about how hard it was to lose Calvin and Mark, and I was reminded why I became a Green Beret in the first place.”

A military brat who volunteered after 9/11 and spent four years as an Army photojournalist, Anderson tried out for the elite Special Forces unit after deciding “these were the best guys in the world.” His experience in combat did nothing to change his mind, but his teammates’ response — to say nothing of his own — to the loss of Harrison and Forester prompted a fresh calling, to apply the Green Beret motto (“To liberate the oppressed”) to those vets held captive by a combat mentality.

Which brings us, roundabout, to the crates along the foul line, and the possibility of liberation within them.

In the morning heat, the aroma of baking canvas rises from each, advertising green Army field tents within. By Friday afternoon, they’ll have bloomed in the outfield, providing overnight accommodations for some 300 veterans — most homeless, or at risk for homelessness — attending the first two-day Pasco Stand Down, sort of a pep rally and celebration wrapped around a mini-convention of veterans service providers.

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“Lots of people say they support the troops, and I love to see their bumper stickers,” says Anderson, now studying social work at Saint Leo University, “but when you ask them what they’re willing to do once they’re home and trying to fit back into civilian life, there’s always some excuse. ‘Well, I’d like to do something, but.’ ”

Stand Down events, around since 1988, now numbering about 200 nationwide, are a high-profile opportunity for troops-supporters to make good on their better natures while creating fresh glide paths back to civilian life for veterans of any era.

“When we went into the villages” in Afghanistan, Anderson says, “we worked with their communities. Our job was to help them help themselves, to help them develop perseverance. We used our skills to help them overcome adversity.” Now, he says, it’s time that training was set loose at home.

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Accordingly, Pasco Stand Down will abound with the green shoots of budding partnerships, from the showy arrival of paratroopers supported by Skydive City and steak dinners catered by Outback Steakhouse to wake-up coffee by Starbucks and a near riot of personal services — including more hot meals, haircuts, showers, legal teams, and counselors for mental health and job training — on Saturday. Those who go the distance will receive a Pasco Stand Down “challenge coin,” good for breaking the ice with strangers down at the VFW. “It’s their diploma,” says Patti Templeton of Generations Christian Church’s nonprofit organization, One Community Now.

Additional information, including how to volunteer or how to arrange transportation, is available at www.PascoStandDown.org.

“We’re going to turn Pasco County into a veterans’ sanctuary,” Anderson vows. “We’re going to serve those who served us.”

Given the price they were willing to pay, how can we do less?

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