Catching vets before they fall

When he got out of the U.S. Army with an honorable discharge in 1993, Patrick Tillich's life took a negative turn.

He spent some nights in jail, which he looked forward to so he wouldn't have to sleep on the streets. He also enjoyed the jail's warm meals over Dumpster diving for food. He continued the drug abuse he had picked up overseas while in the service and was absent from his daughter's life.

"As an active alcoholic and drug addict of over 27 years and a homeless veteran, I felt that nobody cared about who I was as person," he said via email. "I had no direction or purpose in life, living day-to-day, feeling alone and 'out-casted' by society."

After resisting change for years, he decided that his daughter needed her father and enlisted himself in a treatment program for homeless veterans. The program directed him to Working Wardrobes, an organization which he said helped him become sober, get an education, find employment and earn partial custody of his daughter.

VetNet was founded by Working Wardrobes, a Costa Mesa-based nonprofit founded in 1990 dedicated to helping those in transition return to work.

Originally an organization to help female victims of domestic abuse, Working Wardrobes eventually expanded to help men and women in various straights find work.

Veterans were added to the program in 2005, and VetNet became official last year.

Harry Humphries, executive director of VetNet and a former Navy SEAL, said that VetNet focuses on recent veterans, as well as veterans who are recovering and trying to get back on their feet. He also said that 25% of homeless veterans in the country live in California, with the next highest percentage being 9% in Texas.

"We try to catch them before the fall, and we try to bring them back up when they're down," he said.

VetNet provides job-training and mentoring for veterans looking to find work. They also provide them with wardrobes, donated by the community, volunteers and Men's Wearhouse, as well as help them write current and appropriate resumes.

An earlier version incorrectly said that the organization that Patrick Tillich found during treatment was VetNet. In fact, it was Working Wardrobes. Also, VetNet is funded by donations from volunteers and Men's Wearhouse, incorrectly spelled Warehouse, as well as the community.

"We try to guide them into the areas where they best would fit, which is in itself difficult," Humphries said. "It's difficult for the veteran, and it's also difficult for the training at human resources departments of corporations. It's a dual-training process. But, in essence, our job is to marry those two as best we can."

VetNet works with various employers to find jobs for the veterans.

"We know where to go, and our success rate is quite good," he said.

Veterans of all discharge statuses who have proof of their service, such as a DD Form 214 Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, are accepted into the program. VetNet can also provide assistance to veterans who may not know how to obtain the form.

He said that helping veterans is important because their transition from military life to civilian life is a step into the unknown.

"The biggest problem is trying to adjust to that, especially coming from a wartime environment," he said. "There's a defensive mentality that is created in all human beings. You become hardened, but that's not an accepted mentality in a civilian environment. You have to get out of that defensive posture and into a trusting, law abiding posture."

Retired Sgt. Matt Eversmann, whose story was told in the film "Black Hawk Down," agreed.

"The odds are against them in a lot of circumstances," said Eversmann, who was scheduled to serve as the keynote speaker at a VetNet event Thursday evening. "Those guys were war heroes. They come back to the civilian world and are kind of unknown. It truly is that dramatic. We need to support it.

"I'm speaking from experience. It's a very new world out here. You don't get the training when you're in active duty to make this transition. You don't have the support network built in, and most don't even know what they want to do or how their skills will transfer over. What you know and learn in the military is far beyond just the technical skills. What you learn about is people."

Success stories like Tillich's are the most important thing to VetNet, said the program's chief executive and founder, Jerri Rosen.

"I think the greatest thing is when we get a call from a client saying they got the job," she said. "This company is dedicated to making that happen."

For more information about VetNet, including how to donate, visit

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