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Nevada: U.S.VETS–Las Vegas – A Sure Bet

January 27, 2014

Thursday, November 7, 2013: Las Vegas, Nevada

Several life events led me to postpone the trip to my 50th and final U.S. state, Nevada. It has been over a year since my last post (and I’ve turned 50), and it’s great to be back.

Contrary to all expectations a year ago, my dad’s death was not one of those major life events. He is still around, and he picks up the telephone when I call much more often now than when he was in much better health. By that measure, he is very much alive. He has enjoyed several ups and suffered as many downs with prostate cancer. In planning to visit Vegas over Veteran’s Day weekend, I naturally thought of Dad’s military service in the Korean War, and the physical and emotional traumas he suffered that affect him to this day. As a tribute to him, I was grateful to find a volunteer opportunity with the Las Vegas chapter of U.S.VETS-Las Vegas, a non-profit organization that serves homeless and at-risk veterans and their families.

U.S.VETS-Las Vegas hosted its fifth annual “Honoring Those Who Serve” benefit dinner the evening of November 7, 2013 at the Aliante Hotel and Casino in North Las Vegas for about 400 attendees paying $100 a plate. My fellow volunteers were a friendly bunch (as volunteers almost always are), including active duty and veteran military personnel, as well as civilians like me. We put together bundles of raffle tickets for sale, checked in the guests, sold raffle tickets, and several other jobs to make the event run smoothly.

Chelby, Manny, and John - U.S.VETS-Las Vegas volunteers

Chelby, Manny, and John – U.S.VETS-Las Vegas volunteers

This experience was a far cry from my first one in Delaware distributing food at a food bank. Here coat and tie were required dress for volunteers, and we got to eat the sumptuous meal along with all the paying guests. The extravagance by comparison with all other volunteer activities I’d ever done jarred my sensibilities somewhat, even while I knew that it takes money to make money.

That’s what fundraisers are for, of course–to encourage and cajole by any honorable means the better off to empty their pockets for the needy. The stories of homeless vets were much more than a means to this end for me. “Tony,” recently homeless, told his story of drinking and disconnection from family. Now sober for three months, with a place to live, in contact with his son for the first time in years, he seemed proud to be able to take a place on the stage and share his progress. “Kari” had endured sexual assault in the military, an injury, a car accident, and other traumas leading to homelessness and eventually the services of U.S.VETS-Las Vegas.

We were all eating our fancy dinners while they described pain and hardship, offering only a hint of a feel-good ending: a long road to a hoped-for better future lay ahead of these veterans. The clatter of silverware on plates seemed to dishonor them. I felt awkward. But these stories should not be palatable. They should be unsettling. They should make us stop what we’re doing, disrupt our comfort.

Nicole, Nicole, and Michelle - U.S.VETS volunteers

Nicole, Nicole, and Michelle – U.S.VETS volunteers

It occurred to me that I had come full circle in a way, because I had surely helped a veteran or two in Delaware at the food bank. And here I was helping veterans again in a small way that was very much the other side of the same coin. At the food bank, we were helping in the most simple, direct way—giving food. At the Vegas benefit, we were amassing large sums of money—over $75,000—in a matter of hours through the ticket price, raffle, silent auction, and live auction items, to fund activities that would also help. Housing, job assistance, and counseling don’t materialize out of thin air.

I may be against these wars, and our country’s love affair with all things military, but I’m not at all against veterans and their loved ones, who are vulnerable and easily forgotten. Many of them have lost friends, family, parts of their bodies, suffering unimaginable trauma and lifelong emotional scars. We may look at those with the means to afford a $100 meal and wonder: is this the best way to serve and honor homeless vets, or anyone else in need? Is feeding our faces and drinking alcohol in the name of service appropriate? Consider this: two trips to Washington, DC fetched over $10,000 in the live auction. That kind of money doesn’t come from bake sales, which also have their place, but are definitely the slow track. The numbers of homeless veterans have increased rapidly as our country’s wars have stretched on through an economic depression that is hardly over for those who’ve suffered the most. U.S.VETS-Las Vegas is a far better bet for my time and money than casino slots.

Post script: My dad passed away on January 19, 2014, and I dedicate this to his memory.

One Comment
  1. Somehow I missed this when it first went up. But I find that in the past year, I have been made more and more aware of just how neglected are the people we ask to risk–and give their lives for the nation. I have a colleague at the small press where I published my novel, who recently “came out” on his blog as a homeless vet. His military status (retired) was on his profile, and a picture of him during his active duty days, but not his current situation. He is living in “transitional” housing, but odds are, he will be there for the rest of his life–or at least, many years to come.

    One of my dear friends has been working for an organization that serves homeless vets (a mixed government and non-profit venture) and she fields calls all day long from those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. So often, homelessness is the result of problems that arose because of military service–things like traumas and injuries and addictions that have led to estrangement from family.

    I like you, am opposed to our most recent wars, but, like you am certainly not opposed to getting the veterans caught up by them the services and respect they need and deserve. I’m glad you raised so much money–however you did it. I’m sure those people paying $100 a plate could have gone to a nice restaurant and paid the same for no cause at all. So I think in the larger context, it’s good work.

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