Jeff Jardine

Did you thank a veteran? These vets are returning the favor to poor, homeless

Earlier this month, on Veterans Day, scores of people approached scores of veterans and thanked them for their service. But if they think serving the nation and the public ended the day these vets mustered out of the military, think again.

Late Wednesday afternoon, two groups created and led by veterans and sharing a common goal – to serve the community and the disenfranchised – pooled their resources to feed the homeless at Graceada Park. They also distributed coats and blankets and other clothing items to help those without shelter to endure the colder weather as winter approaches.

Terrence van Doorn and George Retana both served in the Marines in Iraq. They saw veterans who were homeless. They encountered veterans who brought the wars home with them emotionally and mentally. They met veterans who felt most unappreciated. They decided to do something about it, and one great way to make veterans feel more valued, they said, is to get them engaged in helping others.

After leaving the military, van Doorn, 33, wanted to begin a career in law enforcement. But he struggled to shake the post-traumatic stress disorder cobwebs that developed from fighting in Fallujah, where friend and comrade Michael Anderson Jr. was killed. I wrote about van Doorn in 2009. He’d passed the written and physical tests with hopes of becoming a deputy sheriff. But he couldn’t pass the psychological exam due to his PTSD.

He got the help he needed and tried to hire on at the Department of Corrections, which also rejected him. He continued to get counseling and, in 2006, the Ceres Police Department hired him and put him through the academy. Then-Chief Art de Werk told me at the time that he couldn’t have been more impressed with van Doorn. But two months after joining the force, some of the ghosts returned. Van Doorn resigned from the force, he said, rather than put the community and himself at risk. He went to work for Stanislaus County Veterans Services, helping veterans similar to himself negotiate the return to civilian life. He now works with Wounded Warrior Project, which among other things helps veterans with disabilities train for and compete in athletic events and bring some normalcy back into their everyday lives. He works with veterans in Northern California and Nevada.

This year, van Doorn started Team R2, which stands for resiliency and recovery, part of which involves getting veterans to be more proactive in aiding others in the community.

Retana, 29, did two tours of duty in Iraq before becoming a Marine recruiter. He and his wife, Maria, moved from San Diego to the Valley about two years ago. Last year, he organized Operation Rescue (not affiliated with the pro-life organization of the same name). On Thanksgiving Eve of 2015, Retana’s group fed roughly 50 people and handed out clothing and other necessities at Graceada Park.

“We get donations to feed the homeless, and whatever else it costs my wife (Maria) and I pick up,” he said.

Last year, it cost the couple about $1,000 out of pocket, but he said it was worth it. Getting other veterans involved, serving the poor and distributing the goods, is equally rewarding, he said. Retana also enlisted members of his church, the Apostolic Worship Center in Salida, and other friends.

“We had 40 to 50 people out there helping,” Retana said.

When he met van Doorn, they discovered they’d both created veterans groups with the same intentions. So why compete when they could work together to serve more people?

Wednesday’s effort became the first of what they hope will become a long-term arrangement. Neither group operates as a nonprofit, though both likely will work toward that status at some point. Folks who donate food and clothing do so for the empirical benefits, not the tax deductions. Heading into it, they expected to feed and provide warmth to more than 100 people.

“We’re there for all of the homeless,” van Doorn said. “People with families, children. We collected coats and blankets. We got Starbucks coffee.”

And some of the same veterans who get thanked periodically for serving their country saluted their country in return by serving those in need.

Happy Thanksgiving.