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Veterans feel a debt toward an old warhorse of a judge

I was apprehensive about asking Harry Pregerson the specifics of his war injury, but apparently I didn't need to be.

Pregerson, the longest-serving justice in the history of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, leveled his gaze at me in a room with several other men.

"Well, you know," said His Honor, "some [unprintable] tried to kill me, and he hit me in the legs."

The judge, a U.S. Marine, was talking about what happened on April 1, 1945, when he landed at Okinawa. He stood before us, unbuckled his belt and dropped his pants.

"I'm 90 years old," he said, revealing two deep gashes, one on each thigh. "I don't give a damn."

Oh, but he does. Pregerson is still very much a part of a thriving nonprofit that wouldn't exist if not for his vision and perseverance. And with Veterans Day coming up Monday, this seems a good time to review the work of U.S. VETS, which last month marked its 20th anniversary by honoring Pregerson and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, the latter for her consistent support of an organization that has rescued thousands of formerly homeless vets.

QUIZ: Test your Veterans Day knowledge

"In the early '90s, we had 80,000 or 90,000 homeless people in L.A., and about 20,000 of them were veterans," said Pregerson, whose determination to do something about it led him to a Vietnam Marine veteran named Steve Peck.

Peck, son of the late actor Gregory Peck, had given up a documentary film career and was working in outreach at the West L.A. Veterans Administration at the time.

"When the judge calls a meeting, everyone shows up," said Peck, who recalled a large gathering at the VA to hear Pregerson's call to action. "He was preaching to us, saying 'We've got to get these veterans off the streets. This is shameful.'"

Pregerson's search for housing led him to the 600-unit dormitory for Northrop trainees near LAX in Inglewood. Funding was secured from a housing program for residents displaced by the construction of the Century Freeway. Pregerson helped form the first board of L.A. VETS, which later became U.S. VETS. Peck, who joined the organization in 1996, is now president and chief executive.

Today, U.S. VETS has 11 sites nationally and provides housing, supportive services and job connections for thousands of veterans, with roughly 600 of them living at the Northrop site and 500 more in Long Beach. Funding comes from government sources, nonprofit partnerships and private donations.

"The VA simply doesn't have enough money to deal with the number of veterans coming back" from Iraq and Afghanistan "who need help, and with the number of aging veterans who need housing," said Peck, who put the number of homeless vets nationally at 60,000. Hundreds of thousands more suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other service-related health issues, Peck said.

His staff searches "soup kitchens, churches and under bridges" for distressed veterans and reels them in for addiction and mental health counseling. In a prevention initiative, U.S. VETS is doing outreach on college campuses to identify PTSD and other issues before problems arise.

Last week at the Inglewood site, Pregerson bumped into 93-year-old vet Sam Saulter, who jumped back when Pregerson said he was a judge.

"Don't worry," Pregerson said. "I never lock up anybody over 90."

Saulter, who landed at Normandy and fought under the command of Gen. George S. Patton, asked Pregerson what war he fought in.

"The Civil War," Pregerson joked.

Two much younger vets also met Pregerson and later shared their stories with me.

Marine Justin Lair, 31, said his "top-secret clearance and FBI training" made him feel "bullet-proof" while serving as presidential guard for George W. Bush's helicopter trips, even after "planes started going into the sides of buildings."

But his feeling of invincibility was lost in his transition to civilian life, and he and his wife and children ended up couch-surfing. Lair couldn't believe he'd gone from serving the president to being essentially homeless and unemployed.

He left his family with relatives while he rebuilt his confidence and career at U.S. VETS. Today Lair and his family have their own place in Costa Mesa, and he's an executive with a national carpet cleaning company.

Marine Eric Gonzalez, 23, returned to San Bernardino after combat duty in Afghanistan with wounds he didn't know he had. He drove insanely and tangled with cops until catching a break from Veterans Court in Orange County. Instead of prison, he was sent to U.S. VETS, where he began to confront his demons.

"A key element for me was watching my sergeant major burn to death," Gonzalez said of his time in Helmand province, where mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices punctuated the long days and nights.

"If it wasn't for U.S. VETS and all the treatment they've provided me," said Gonzalez, he might never have confronted where he'd been or dealt with who he had become. He's now about to move into his own place and he's in school, training to be a sound engineer.

Gonzalez and Lair said it was an honor to meet Pregerson last week, with Lair saying "we would not have received the help we got if not for him."

"I just wanna give him a big hug."

To learn more about services at U.S. VETS, or to donate, go to http://www.usvetsinc.org.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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