Steve Brockman was waiting to get a haircut. He sat on a folding chair on the basketball court at the Sheridan Park Community Center on Saturday morning, wearing dark plastic-framed glasses, looking impassive and speaking softly. His hair was on the long side and mostly gray.
During the 1970s, Brockman was a morse code interceptor in the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and then in Texas — picking up messages sent by the militaries of communist China, North Korea and the Soviet Union.
Asked if he still remembers that antiquated code language, Brockman — who now lives in transitional veterans housing near Port Orchard — replied that he certainly does.
Brockman is one of more than 100 military veterans who came to the community center in Bremerton over the weekend for the biannual Stand Down event, where services like dental work, legal advice, groceries and, yes, haircuts were offered to support those who served.
The event is organized by the Kitsap County Veteran Assistance Program — a county agency headed by Vietnam veteran and retired attorney Andrew Sargent. The Stand Down is an open house, meant to help all veterans, including those who lack adequate resources or have fallen on hard times.
It’s structured like a job fair, with organizations setting up booths circling the gym, as men and women — many wearing ball caps with the name of a war they fought in, a branch of the army the served in, or even a ship they were stationed on — mill about, inquiring. A trailer with a traveling dentist’s office was parked outside, near a food truck from Proud American BBQ — a veteran-owned business — selling pork, mashed potatoes and vegetables. Free clothing, shoes, blankets and towels were available courtesy of Abraham House.
Organizations like the Northwest Justice Project, a legal nonprofit, the National Association of Black Veterans, Kitsap Transit, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Red Cross set up booths. Volunteers, some wearing yellow reflective vests, helped prepare meals, bag groceries and register visitors.
Dave Dealba, a Vietnam veteran in gunfire support with the U.S. Navy, said he came for information on the VA and to see about disability benefits. He had PTSD and was losing his hearing.
He said he attends counseling twice a month at the Tacoma Veterans Center, which has been helpful in dealing with his PTSD symptoms.
“It doesn’t make you forget,” he said, “but it’s been a godsend.”
Dealba smiled for a photo with Leonard Duran, another Navy veteran.
Service members past and present took part in the proceedings.
Around 10:15 a.m. in a quiet hallway of the rec center, six young Navy men and women in full white service dress practiced choreography for a ceremonial table setting they would be conducting.
Around 10:45, the gym quieted as a prayer over the food was said. In a formal ceremony, the service members set six places to honor U.S. prisoners of war and those missing in action from all branches of the military. They placed drinking glasses on a circular table topped with a single red rose and a lemon, to symbolize the bitterness of losing a loved one.
Alongside moments of solemnity, the mood was hopeful among many under clear skies and mild temperatures Saturday.
“It makes me so happy to be here,” said county commissioner Edward Wolfe, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War and has not missed a Stand Down since he’s been in office.
It was the 24th Stand Down according to Jim McKenna, who chaired the event.
McKenna said people lined up as early as 7 a.m., many seeking dental care, which was limited due to time constraints.
“If you’re not early, you don’t get it,” said John Hadwin, an aviation mechanic with the Navy from 1971-1974.
Peter Petrovich waited in line for barbecue from the food truck. He served in the Army as an electronic signals specialist in the 1980s, and now works in construction and pipe fitting. He said he came to the Stand Down for clothing and groceries, and to seek other help.
“I’m still getting on my feet,” he said.
Until four years ago, Petrovich was homeless and living in Seattle. He said certain veterans agencies, like the VA and the King County veterans program, were instrumental in securing him an apartment.
“I was down and out, living in the bushes and sleeping in vehicles” he said. “The King County veterans program helped me a lot.”
He said he knew experiences could differ among veterans seeking help from federal or state agencies.
“I hear stories both ways,” he said.
Hadwin, originally from Reno, Nevada, said he thought the quality of assistance had improved over the years.
“They’re useful,” he said of the Stand Down events. “You find out what’s available in the veteran community.”