Stand down helps many veterans stand up

TOGUS — A few years ago, Mark Seger was living what he describes as an upper-middle-class lifestyle. He had a family, a job and even a little money in the bank.

That all changed in 2010, when Seger’s marriage ended in divorce, the company where he worked was sold and closed, and the trailer he shared with his 14-year-old daughter burned to the ground. In a matter of months, Seger had burned through his savings. He and his daughter moved into a tent.

"I started spiraling down," Seger said.

Seger and his daughter have had a home for the past two years, thanks to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has stepped up efforts over that time to find housing for homeless veterans. Part of that effort, the annual Maine Homeless Veterans Stand Down, was held Saturday at the VA Healthcare Systems Maine Medical Center — Togus.

Stand downs across the country offer a wide range of services for the nation’s homeless veterans, including medical care and supplies, such as clothing and footwear. Veterans also are provided with information on housing, medical and other benefits for which they qualify.

This year’s stand down, the 15th held at Togus, attracted more than 90 homeless veterans from across the state.

"They’ll find the resources they might not know they’re eligible for," Seger said.

Seger, 55, of Winthrop, spent a total of 18 years serving in the U.S. Navy and Army, before building a successful civilian life. He never had reason to find out about his VA benefits until facing financial calamity. Then Seger began to think about being two years shy of 20 years’ service, which would have entitled him to a retirement with full benefits.

"Because I didn’t do my 20 years, I didn’t think I was eligible for benefits," Seger said.

He visited Kennebec Valley Community Action Program for help in finding a place to live.

"She asked me if I was a vet," Seger recalled. "I said ‘yes,’ and she brought me to Togus."

There, Seger was introduced to the supportive housing program, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA, which expedites the process of placing homeless veterans and their families in suitable housing.

According to the VA, there were 132,000 homeless veterans in the country in 2009, which marked the beginning of a five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans. The number of homeless vets had declined to 76,600 by June of 2011, according to officials.

"The VA got me back on my feet," Seger said.

Seger’s older daughter, Jennifer Kritzer, of Greene, offered free haircuts in another part of the medical center. She had already done 11 haircuts over the first two hours.

"High and tights have been the haircut of the day," Kritzer said with a chuckle.

Kritzer, who owns Impulse Hair Salon in Auburn, spent four years in the Navy, beginning in 1993. Her husband is on active duty for the Maine Army National Guard.

"I try to do what I can to help the veterans," Kritzer said.

While a haircut does not supply an urgent need, such as eye care or housing assistance, it helps restore something that is arguably even more important: dignity.

"They walk out with their heads held a little higher and with a smile," Kritzer said. "It’s amazing what a haircut can do for someone."

The one-day event is modeled after the first Homeless Veterans Stand Down, held in 1988. The event was conceived by two Vietnam veterans, who based the program after the stand down concept used during the Vietnam War, to provide a safe retreat for units returning from combat.

There are now 190 stand downs every year. An estimated 42,000 homeless veterans received help during the 2009 stand down.

Richard Morin, 56, of Portland, was a Marine from 1971 to 1973, before being medically discharged. He said drinking led to his homelessness in January. He attended the stand down in hopes of getting a check up.

"I could use a new pair of boots," he said.

Morin, who said he has not had a drink since January, is in the process of getting housing with help from the VA.

"When I became homeless, I didn’t know what to do," he said. "I didn’t even know I qualified for benefits before I became homeless."

Seger hopes veterans like Morin will go back and rally other homeless veterans who have resisted turning to the VA.

"They can go back and tell them about their good experience and get the next one here," Seger said.

Aaron Brooker, 42, of Bangor, had taken advantage of his VA benefits before Saturday, but the stand down offered a chance to receive multiple services without missing a paycheck. Brooker is currently a sanitation worker employed through a temporary agency. Brooker, who served in the Coast Guard from 1993 to 1997, became homeless five months ago, after losing his full-time job. He has been approved for a housing voucher.

"I lost my job. Lost my income," Brooker said. "It’s a typical American anti-success story."

Craig Crosby can be reached by calling 621-5642 or emailing