DANIELSON – For several hours on Saturday, spaces inside Quinebaug Valley Community College were transformed into a one-stop veterans’ service center where everything from free health screenings to benefit sign-up stations were set up.
The 2022 Veterans Stand Down Resource Fair, begun in 2016, drew in hundreds of local veterans and dozens of vendors, along with several state and federal entities and community groups.
The event, a joint collaboration between the college and the Danielson Veterans Coffeehouse organization, attracted a mix of younger and older veterans from a range of military branches and service eras.
“What this event does is give veterans a better idea of which organization they can reach out to with an issue, or to learn what benefits they’re entitled to,” said Joel Niemann, QVCC’s veterans services coordinator.
Niemann, a U.S. Army veteran who served tours in the Middle East, said many younger, recently-discharged veterans leave the service without fully understanding what benefits – educational, housing, health – they’ve earned.
“Like me, when they’re getting out, they are done with all that and it’s not until later they get interested in learning about those things,” he said. “I hope they come here and realize there’s help right here in the community, whether it’s about going back to school or job opportunities.”
The resource fair was sectioned off into health and benefit areas with classroom-situated vendors signing up attendees for free COVID-19 shots, blood pressure and cancer screening checks and fitness assessments.
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A slew of state and federal organizations set up shop in a community room where guests could register with the VA CT Healthcare System, get information on the college’s manufacturing tech center or just chat members of local veterans’ groups.
Fred Ruhlemann, president of the Danielson Veterans Coffeehouse, which has met weekly for years, said some of the big obstacles in getting benefit information to veterans revolve around time and distance, especially since the more established stand down events occur quite a distance from Eastern Connecticut.
“It’s the same old problem: younger veterans are working on Fridays – which is when those events are scheduled in places like Rocky Hill,” he said. “And the nearest VA services centers are also either in Rocky Hill or Rhode Island.”
For years, the coffeehouse meetings have served as a de-facto information point for Eastern Connecticut veterans with members offering advice to service members unsure of how to activate their benefits.
“It should be easier,” Ruhlemann said. “You shouldn’t have to have something like this for a veteran to get basic information on what they’re owed, but it’s needed. If I can help even just one veteran on any day, then I’m doing my job.”
Dayville resident Neil Stanley, 59, signed up on Saturday for a COVID-19 booster shot and a skin cancer screening test. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran lauded the convenience of having so many benefit-oriented organizations under one roof at the same time.
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“It’s absolutely great to have all this in one place,” he said. “And I plan on attending school here soon.”
Army veteran Steve Randolph, a coffeehouse member, recently attended a meeting where Russell Armstead, acting executive medical center director for the VA Connecticut healthcare system, spoke.
“I had talked to him about an unresolved medical issue I have and I just saw him again here,” Randolph said. “He gave me his business card and personal cell phone number.”
Armstead, a decorated combat veteran with tours of Afghanistan and Iraq under his belt, said though all service members sit though a benefit overview presentation prior to discharge, the information doesn’t necessarily seep in.
“There’s so much going on at that point as they’re preparing to embark on a livelihood that those benefits become an abstract,” Armstead said. “It can be hard to wrap your head around a benefit that you think you might never need or need decades later.”
Armstead said he’s not sure how to reiterate the value of benefits to a soldier, Marine, sailor or airman poised to leave the service, but events like the stand down and groups like the coffeehouse play a crucial role in re-connecting veterans with what they’ve earned.
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“It all happens so fast when you’re getting out and these community events help pull veterans back in and remind them of the tapestry of benefits out there,” he said.
Linda Colangelo, education and communications coordinator for the Northeast District Department of Health and member of the college’s veterans’ advisory council, said the mission of the stand down event was simple.
“It’s about connecting veterans to the resources they need,” she said.
John Penney can be reached at [email protected] or at (860) 857-6965