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Battles Past and Present : On a Day of Salutes to Veterans, Many Face a Struggle on the Streets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As people throughout Southern California celebrated the heroism of America’s veterans, a West Los Angeles ceremony Monday focused on the thousands who once defended the country but now live on its streets.

Nearly 200 people gathered on the grounds of the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center, where a group of politicians, homeless activists and veterans said the government must recognize those now fighting for shelter, jobs and medical assistance.

Such needs were underscored by the release of a Veterans Day report by the National Coalition for the Homeless stating that roughly one-third of all homeless single men nationwide are veterans. The report cited federal statistics that show between 150,000 to 250,000 veterans are homeless on any given night--an estimate that Coalition representatives say is probably low.

“A quarter of a million veterans are on the street,” National Coalition representative Gary Blasi told the crowd. “That means on any given night there are 20 divisions on the street. Many are in camps downtown. But they’re not in tents. They’re in boxes. . . . This time we’ve sent them out alone, and they’re fighting a lonely fight.”

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The report, calling the federal government’s response to this problem “shamefully inadequate,” specifically criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs. It said VA hospitals regularly send veterans back to the streets or shelters after they have completed treatment programs.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said a growing number of veterans and concerned citizens are demanding change.

“It’s a new day,” said Waters, the ceremony’s keynote speaker. ". . . The lie that has prevailed for so long--that America is taking care of its veterans--is being dismantled.”

Paul West, associate director of the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, agreed that the federal government needs to continue examining ways to solve the problem of homelessness, but said his facility serves homeless veterans through several on-site programs.

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He also announced that there are plans to develop a long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for homeless veterans in a vacant building belonging to the medical center.

Other dignitaries and entertainers appearing at the ceremony included State Sen. Charles M. Calderon, (D-Whittier), talk show host Montel Williams, and singers Melissa Manchester and Freda Payne. Republican U.S. Sen. John Seymour spoke at an earlier ceremony held at the facility and visited patients unable to attend the outdoor festivities.

In West Los Angeles and elsewhere, Southern Californians saluted America’s newest heroes from the Persian Gulf, honored the veterans of earlier wars, and remembered those soldiers who never made it home but may still be alive in Southeast Asia.

In Simi Valley, taps was sounded at the new Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where more than 500 people listened to retired Lt. Gen. Herbert Temple, commander-in-chief of the national Military Order of World Wars, give the keynote address.

At another ceremony, consuls general from countries including Great Britain, Mexico and the Philippines attended the 32nd annual West Coast Sacred Torch Ceremonies at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Hollywood Hills.

Somber tributes were held at Pasadena City Hall and in Long Beach, while the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Sepulveda sponsored a parade for hospitalized patients.

And in Ventura County, more than 1,000 people, many of them waving miniature American flags, showed up at Plaza Park in Oxnard for the dedication of the Oxnard Veterans Memorial, a five-pyramid monument representing U.S. wars beginning with World War I.

Back at the VA Medical Center in West Los Angeles, Herbert McLain, a homeless Vietnam War veteran, watched the pomp and circumstance, and shook his head.

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“A lot of these people are out here for one day and they’ll go back to their homes,” said McLain, who said he moved from a box on Skid Row to a garden near the medical center two years ago. “The vets who sleep on the grounds, they’re not here, because they’ve been disappointed before.”

He claimed that nearly 30 men, who may have fought with him in Vietnam, or fought before him in another war, now live alongside him--homeless, on the grounds.

“I’ve slept worse here,” he said, “than I slept in Vietnam.”


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