On a cool, cloudy morning about a month ago, my colleague Tamika Brown and I stood in the midst of a massive tent city in Seaside, California. The air smelled of the Pacific Ocean, and also of smoke, thanks to the enormous wildfire burning in nearby Big Sur. Row after row of khaki-colored tents stretched out before us, filling a parking lot the size of a football field.
The location of all of these tents was the former Fort Ord, a decommissioned Army base located on the California coast about 120 miles south of San Francisco. Fort Ord now houses, among other things, the Veterans Transition Center of Monterey County (VTC), which provides assistance to veterans in need in the Monterey Peninsula region. Tamika and I were at Fort Ord to take part in a Stand Down, an event designed to provide social, medical, and other benefits to homeless veterans. The name is derived from the Vietnam War-era practice of offering relief and amenities at secure base camps to troops coming back from combat operations. The services VTC provides to this vulnerable population are commendable and much needed, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that more than 39,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Nearly 10,000 of them are in California.
We learned about the Monterey County Stand Down on a previous visit to Monterey this past February, when my colleague Rachel Mears and I traveled there to meet with Enid Ryce, a professor in the Cinematic Arts department at California State University-Monterey Bay (CSUMB). Along with her students, Enid has been documenting the history of the former Fort Ord through oral history interviews and visual art.
Enid introduced us to VTC director William “Terry” Barre, and during our conversation, we brainstormed a plan to conduct Veterans History Project (VHP) interviews onsite during the Stand Down. It was a bold idea, which raised questions about the logistics and feasibility of recording oral history interviews outside and in crowded conditions, but it represented a rare opportunity to capture the stories of an under-documented segment of the American veteran population, a demographic whose stories are often ignored—that of homeless veterans. Interviewing at the Stand Down also offered the chance to further document the history of Fort Ord, through which nearly 1.5 million soldiers passed from 1917 to 1994.
By August, Enid had assembled a crack team of volunteer interviewers and technicians, including many CSUMB students, staffers, and professors, who got to work setting up makeshift interviewing “booths,” testing digital audio recorders, and prepping the necessary paperwork. As the Stand Down began, nearly immediately, we had a crowd of willing interviewees. Not only did we encounter veterans in transition—those receiving assistance during the Stand Down—but we also met local folks, often veterans themselves, who were volunteering their time there.
For me, the experience of attending the Stand Down, conducting oral history interviews, and talking with these local veterans was profoundly moving. I was blown away by so many elements of the event: the willingness of these veterans to share often-painful stories; how the Fort Ord community came together to help out struggling members of their own; and the overall sense of camaraderie and connectedness that I felt throughout the weekend. The Stand Down itself—and the organization needed to provide everything from dental procedures to x-rays to legal rulings to veterinary care for pets, along with food and shelter, to hundreds of veterans—was also a sight to behold. The Veterans Transition Center executed it flawlessly, with military precision, ultimately serving over 350 veterans.
Over the course of the three-day event, Enid’s team captured more than 40 oral histories with veterans who served in conflicts from World War II through Iraq and Afghanistan. These interviews are currently being processed and added to the VHP archive; some of the footage will also be included in films created by Enid for submission to the DC Environmental Film Festival, which will be held in March 2017.
The Veterans History Project is predicated on the idea that everyone has a story to tell. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it is altogether too easy to forget this—to ignore the fact that “everyone is fighting a hard battle that you know nothing about,” as the saying goes. Perhaps this is especially the case with homeless people, who are often treated as if they are invisible. During the Stand Down, it was our privilege to listen to and record the stories of homeless veterans, many of whom have fought hard battles indeed. We are honored to archive their interviews in the Library of Congress, and to include content from these interviews in future blog posts.
Endless thanks are due to Enid and Walter Ryce, all of the volunteer interviewers and tech staff who staffed the VHP tent at the Stand Down, and Terry Barre and the staff of the Veterans Transition Center. Stand Down events like the one in Marina are held throughout the country: http://www.va.gov/homeless/events.asp.